In all honesty, it was difficult to make out how I felt about this book. The writing has a more juvenile feel, though it deals with incredibly heavy and triggering topics (tastefully so, I might add). I was compelled by the story, though considering it was told from three alternating points of view, I really wished those three stories had come together a lot more cohesively in the end. I was upset by how little they ended up connecting, because it seemed like I didn’t have much time to get to know each girl—Laiping, Sylvie, and Fiona—individually before moving onto the next point of view. That was my biggest issue with the book as a whole, and honestly, aside from that, I pretty much liked it all. That one thing just happened to be quite a sticking point for me.
As a note, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who is triggered by depictions of rape—some of the scenes here can be quite graphic, especially to anyone who is sensitive to the topic. An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
What I Liked: Spoilers!
- I think this book handled its issues very tastefully. While at times more graphic than is comfortable, it deals with Sylvie’s rape in a very sensitive and honest manner. I didn’t find anything about what was written offensive, even in the cases of Laiping’s and Fiona’s stories. It’s open about what happened to Sylvie and the way she remembers and feels it, as if it’s happening again, and while it can really make you cringe and your stomach lurch, I appreciate the sensitivity with which it was ultimately handled.
- I’m no expert on coltan or what goes into making cell phones. To be completely honest, I really do have very little awareness of what goes on in other places of the world. I have issues keeping up with what’s happening in Washington, let alone in countries that have always seemed millions of miles away, like the DRC or China. I’m pretty good about keeping up with big stuff they put on the US news, but I know little else aside from that. It’s shameful, and I’m working on fixing that, but it’s true. That being said, I felt like this was a very well researched novel. After reading the afterword and taking into consideration all the points this book covered, I feel like Stewart did her research and tried to provide an accurate depiction of what different parts of the world look like. Without doing all the research myself, I can’t say for sure whether she is accurate or not, but it seems that way to me. In the afterword (which I recommend reading), you can tell that the author is passionate about what she’s writing about and cares about spreading the word and creating awareness about coltan and mining/factory conditions. I always appreciate a writer who takes their time to make sure they write accurately when dealing with real life issues, and that’s the feeling I got from Stewart’s work.
What I Didn’t Like:
- As sensitively as the heavy topics were handled, something about this writing struck me as juvenile. It moved very quickly and “told” rather than “showed” the story. With books like this, there is always a certain level of emotion that will be evoked in the reader, simply because of circumstance, but overall, this was a very emotionless piece. If the subject matter weren’t so triggering and mature, I would say twelve- to fourteen-year-olds would probably be the best age group for reading this. It never lingered long enough in any one viewpoint to give the reader a sense of how the characters actually felt about the things happening to them, and instead kept up a rather brisk pace in order, it seemed, to prevent the reader from getting bored with the story. That, to me, is characteristic of middle-grade/juvenile writing, so I made the association and it came out feeling like it wasn’t meant for a mature audience. Which sounds strange, considering the subject matter and content, but that’s one of the things that bothered me most about reading this.
- My only other big point here is my problem with the multiple narrations. From the summary, you get a sense that the stories of Fiona, Sylvie, and Laiping will eventually come together into one and make sense. However, that just…never happens. The book is introduced in Fiona’s point of view, a fourteen-year-old girl from Canada who takes a picture of herself topless and sends it to her boyfriend (whom she breaks up a few days after). However, we don’t find out about the aftermath of her picture until much later—we’re told that she sends it, and then we skip onto Laiping and Sylvie, who were obviously favored as narrators far more than Fiona. I would have to go back and count to be sure, but I don’t think there were more than five or six chapters from Fiona’s point of view, while the rest of the nearly three-hundred-page book was told from Sylvie’s or Laiping’s point of view. In all honesty, Sylvie felt like the real narrator of the story and everything else was just…filler. While I feel like Stewart meant to talk about several issues at once, in relation to coltan or cell phones or social media or whatever, it ultimately failed in allowing the reader to think about these three girls entirely. The only one really affected by the coltan industry was Sylvie—Laiping works in a cell phone factory, yes, and Fiona takes a picture of herself with a cell phone, but other than both being about phones, they felt very disconnected. Fiona’s father makes it possible, at the end of the story, for Sylvie and her family to go to Canada, but aside from that, Fiona actually had nothing to do with the larger plotline. Which is sad, considering the message you could send to teens about the dangers of sexting and the consequences that come from taking pictures of yourself like that. (The whole thing on Fiona’s end was handled rather poorly and not very seriously, actually, and that was pretty upsetting, considering how much effort was given to describing the conditions of the other girls.) Laiping also never connected with either of the other girls, except that she heard about Sylvie’s story and her picture happened to end up in Fiona’s new cell phone. Other than that…well, I feel like maybe the book should have just focused on Sylvie and what her story was, instead of trying to do too much all at once.
Overall: When all is said and done, this book was pretty “meh”. It tried, and nearly succeeded, in telling a really great story with a really powerful message, but to me, it failed to do so because it was spread too thin (through the different narrations) and the writing itself was slightly too “middle grade” to really capture how serious the subject was. I’d definitely be interested in reading more from Stewart in the future, but this one, unless you have a specific interest in one of the countries mentioned, or the subject matter of factory conditions in China or coltan mining in the DRC, I would just skip it and perhaps wait for something new from her.