Title: Down in the Belly of the Whale
Author: Kelley Kay Bowles
Category: YA Contemporary
Publisher/Date: Aionios Books/5 May 2018
A contemporary story about family and friendship for fans of Eleanor Porter and L.M. Montgomery.
Harper Southwood is a teenage girl who can sense when people will get sick—but so what? She can’t predict her best friend’s depression or her mother’s impending health crisis. Being helpful is all Harper ever wanted, but she feels helpless in the face of real adversity. Now, she’s got a chance to summon her courage and use her wits to fight for justice. Laugh and cry along with this irrepressible, high-spirited teen in her journey of self-discovery, as she learns that compassion and internal strength are her real gifts, her true superpower.
I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley. This book has content warnings for child sexual assault/rape, self harm, attempted suicide, body shaming, cat dissection, and hospitals.
Unfortunately, this book was not only incredibly poorly-written, but it was also extremely harmful in multiple areas. To start with the writing: this book was all over the place tonally. It dealt with some very dark topics in a rather carefree tone that came off as extremely flippant. The main character, Harper, is said to be intelligent but doesn’t seem to understand anything about the world around her, and this makes the book seem encyclopedia-like in places as she waits for the people around her to explain things to her. For example, after accusing her uncle’s new boyfriend of being a druggie because he needed to give himself a shot of insulin at the table and is explained the medical necessity of shots, she is STUNNED just a few pages later at the thought of a totally different character needing to give themselves shots on a regular basis, something that is incredibly unfathomable even after having the concept explained to her literally earlier the same day. It wasn’t charming; it was extremely annoying, and it felt poorly-executed.
The book’s handling of child sexual assault was even worse. Harper is constantly in “savior mode” despite having no idea what she’s doing, and even though nearly every move she makes is dangerous to someone or another she faces no consequences for any of them. Her best friend Cora attempts suicide and ends up in the hospital; it’s unrealistic because no one is actually keeping an eye on her despite her being suicidal, and Harper had ignored all of the signs of Cora being suicidal previously. After Cora admits that her uncle had sexually abused her and tells Harper that she does NOT want to report it because her father believes her uncle and not her and she doesn’t feel safe reporting because of that, Harper immediately ignores Cora’s wishes and takes it upon herself to report it. And Cora’s father lashes out physically on someone else because of it. The really strange part is Cora isn’t even the slightest bit upset with Harper for completely ignoring her and Harper feels no remorse or guilt for ignoring her friend like that. Reporting an abusive relative of a friend isn’t necessarily the worst course of action, but the way in which it was handled here where the person who reported against the victim’s wishes receives no consequences at all for her actions was incredibly unrealistic, and it rubbed me the wrong way.
Some of the other characters were… Interesting… Harper’s lab partner, whom Harper insists regularly that she’s going to marry, has this weird infatuation with the cat they’re dissecting, and it’s pretty gross. Harper’s uncle, who is probably the most likeable character in the book despite not being super likeable, is essentially the token gay character placed to show that being gay is “normal” and that’s about it. Most characters are forgettable messes without much in terms of personality, and those that weren’t forgettable were either caricatures or overly annoying.
The book also had multiple instances of fat-shaming and skinny-shaming that grated on me, and the book had a “discussion” about cultural appropriation that essentially stated that as long as you know where the thing you’re misusing came from, then misusing it is not appropriation. That’s… not how that works. At all. In fact, that’s deliberate appropriation, and it’s gross.
The only borderline redeeming quality about this book was some (and I mean some) of the discussion of multiple sclerosis, which is the only medical part of the book I even sort of trust because the author herself actually has MS. There were some learning moments there, but they really got buried in the disaster that was the rest of the book. This book didn’t really work for me, and it’s not one that I can recommend to others.
Final rating: 1 of 5 stars