Book Recommendation #3: “The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group” by Catherine Jinks; or A Werewolf’s Coming Out.

I’ve been looking forward to reading “The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group” for a while now. I really enjoyed Catherine Jinks’ previous related story “The Reformed Vampire Support Group,” and was intrigued to see how she would follow it up.

“The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group”, however, was so much more than I’d anticipated.

It is the story of Toby (or Tobias), a teenage boy who wakes up one day in the local wildlife park’s dingo pen. With no idea how he got there, Toby assumes his friends were playing a prank on him, but soon discovers that his night out was rather the result of his rare condition: Toby is a werewolf.

Before I get onto my o-m-g’s about this book, let’s begin with the basics. Like “The Reformed Vampire Support Group”, “The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group” is a fun and exciting twist on the usual young adult paranormal fantasy. Catherine Jinks takes a genre that is full of plot and character expectations and turns it upside down (brilliantly, and with a lovely Aussie vibe to boot). Her characters aren’t those typical selfish yet counter intuitively perfect teens of so many paranormal fantasies. Instead they’re real: they think they know everything, they want to know everything, they’re confused, they’re lost, they’re uncertain, they’re just teenagers, but they’re also werewolves, vampires, and a couple of humans. Also, her plots are filled with action, held together by such a great narrative voice.

The only thing that slightly irritated me was that, having read Jinks’ previous vampire novel, I was already aware of the realities of the world and also knew the backgrounds of certain characters, such as Nina, who was the protagonist of the last book. Unfortunately, this meant that I knew more than the current protagonist, Toby, which is one of my pet hates when it comes to novels written in the 1st person. This was especially painful because Toby spent a lot of the novel unconvinced of his ‘condition’.

Despite this, I really enjoyed “The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group”. I especially love Toby as a character. He’s just a teenage boy trying to understand his place in the world. Which brings me to the point of my review.

Now for the development that I simply wasn’t expecting:

First of all, I feel like I owe you a little preamble: I have a habit of over analysing basic texts. I can’t help myself. Also, I have an ability to see the queer reading in almost anything. That said, I really don’t think the following statement is just my own delusion:

This is SUCH a queer text. In fact, I would classify it as a ‘coming out’ novel.

That’s right. It’s a coming out story, about werewolves.

No seriously. I know what you’re thinking. It’s a young adult fantasy about werewolves, but really, it is so much more. Don’t get me wrong, there is no romantic element to this novel, and it could just as easily be a coming of age novel, but it’s not.

One of the things I love about young adult fantasy is the way the fantasy elements are often used to underscore the issues or messages of the text. While often used in conjunction with other issues, the most common use of fantasy in young adult fiction is to amplify the coming of age story. We see this, of course, in Harry Potter, Buffy, etc. Basically, think of any story where the supernatural element becomes relevant as they are going through, or about to go through, puberty.

It isn’t difficult to understand why fantasy is such an easy vehicle for coming of age messages. Fantasy elements provide such useful metaphor for understanding the teenage condition. The emergence of supernatural powers, which (have you noticed?) always seem to appear during the protagonists’ teenage years, are easily emblematic of the transition experienced by teens and perceived by others during these years. The emergence of supernatural powers acts as an easy representation of the perceived potentials and dangerous boundaries crossed by teenagers, as well as the new responsibilities that they are or feel required to assume.

Yet, the discovery of supernatural powers, just as coming of age, is also about self discovery. It’s about learning to develop an ownership of self, as well as overcoming the difficulties of explaining that self to others.

And ok, I will admit that some of these factors tend to already lean me towards queer readings of texts, where such a reading might not be readily available to all readers.

In the case of “The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group”, however, the reading is just… there, waiting to be received.

I’m not even sure where to begin in explaining this, since it is so obvious and yet remains subtextual. Towards the beginning of the story, one of Toby’s friends asks him how he came to be in the dingo pen, leading, in a roundabout way to asking him if he was with a girl, or *shock and horror* perhaps a boy. Toby’s emphatic “Don’t be stupid” followed by “Just leave me alone, will you?” in answer to the question “Are you gay?” is both aggressive and then suddenly dropped. The topic never explicitly returns to the text from this point on, but the question remains, resounding throughout the book.

Jinks throws in a few stereotypes, which I can’t help but feel were designed to lead us towards a particular reading. For example, throughout the story Toby uses Nina as a fake girlfriend (we might even call her a beard…) as a cover for his ‘condition’, and while he initially seems ashamed of his love of dance, as he comes to terms with his condition, this becomes an accepted part of his identity.

Then of course, there is the actual development of Toby’s self identity. This is essential to his development throughout the novel, beginning with his initial denial of his condition as a werewolf. By the end of the book, however, Toby has come to terms with his identity (as a werewolf…) and we even get a coming out scene, in which he struggles to explain the situation to his mother.

The book finishes rather beautifully with Toby’s declarations of self acceptance and pride, followed by encouragement to others like him, ostensibly other werewolves, to not be ashamed or concerned by their own condition. To quote directly from the last line of the text:

“Just because you’re a werewolf doesn’t mean that you can’t live your life exactly the way you want to.”

Admittedly, the supportive nature of the metaphor falls down a little when Toby explains that he has to keep his identity secret. However, he does explain the need to publicise the condition. I enjoyed this call to visibility, but did find it a little odd in a text which was essentially keeping the vital message hidden. Because, to be clear, none of what I’m suggesting is explicit, but neither, really, is Toby’s lycanthropy. At no point in the story does he actually become a werewolf, just as at no point in the story does he say he’s gay.

Maybe, yet again, I’m completely over reading this whole text, but maybe not.

If you read “The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group”, which you should, I’d love to know what you think.

I’d love to discuss this book even more, but this post has already become a little long for a simple book review. In particular, I’d love to talk about the reasons behind of the continuation of queer subtexts in young adult novels, in a reading climate where novels with explicitly gay characters are, often, though unfortunately not always, accepted. I’d also love to talk about queer identity, visibility and active reading and how these things fit together.

For now, though, I will leave the discussion here – no doubt I’ll ramble on again in the future.

 

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As you might have noticed, I have mostly ceased including book recommendations on my blog. I have decided that I will only include those that lead to some kind of discussion, but you are welcome to read more of my book reviews on my Goodreads profile.

Author: Stuffed Olive

My awesomeness intimidates some people, others just point and laugh.

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7 Comments

  1. I think this is a fantastic and in-depth reading of this novel. I don’t think I would have known about this book, let alone had the chance to get such a great review of it if it weren’t for this. I just took a class where we focused on queer art and theory for a certain amount of time and I see where you’re getting that reading from; and from what I can tell, you’re right–this novel sounds like a great vehicle for this discussion.

    As far as your last question, about the continuation of queer subtexts despite explicitly gay characters, I think that could be a result of the “subtext” of our society, or maybe just those particular authors’ societal interactions. But anyway, I feel as if when people portray anything queer, it must be in an undertone to be accepted. I feel like we as people expect that, no matter the medium. And I think that’s just a product of norms that we perpetuate because it’s easier to deal with. Selfish and easy.

    Hopefully that made sense and wasn’t too rambly…great review.

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    • Yay! Thanks for leaving such a considered comment.

      There is so much to talk about in regard to this novel in particular (hence the length of this post… which was about a fifth of the length it would have been if I hadn’t restrained myself), but there is also so much to discuss regarding queer subtext vs overt characterisations in fiction. I think this is particularly interesting to consider in the case of young adult fiction, since this is both where we need more queer representations and there seems to be less of it available. I have read some truly troubling articles about censorship in the publishing industry that I really hope are exaggerating the situation.

      I think you are completely right that people are much more willing to accept an undertone, and, if this one is deliberate (which I really just don’t know!), then I praise Jinks for at least going that far. I really think, though, that more overt visibility of queer characters needs to occur in our ya fiction! As you say, the lack of this is “a product of norms that we perpetuate”, but we can only normalise queer values and make them acceptable by breaking a few taboos.

      By the same token! I think there is a lot of power in texts that offer multiple readings, just as there is SO MUCH power in active reading and the opportunity for audiences to supply their own meaning to texts.

      GOSH! SEE! I have too many thoughts… will have to do a follow up post at some point, although I have a few of those I keep meaning to do!

      Post a Reply
      • I couldn’t agree more, and definitely about the absolute need for more overt queer characters in YA. Not just because those readers are out there, but because “those” people are out there and regardless of whether someone is queer or not, being aware and considerate is a we-must-address-this-NOW issue. I teach 8th grade and we, as a society, seriously need to start talking about these values.

        Following that, you’re doubly right about the necessity of multiple readings: if we need to widen our awareness and deepen our considerations, then what better way than to see and read/interact with different POVs? Yes, they exist and we should listen. It’s a big picture with tons of detail. One reading just won’t do. It should be here’s information1, information2 and 3 and 4…NOW, what do you think? *deep breath* Alright, I’m ready. Let’s change the world. 🙂

        PS
        I’d love to read your follow-up post. Tweet me when it’s up? I don’t want to miss it.

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        • J.M! I’m so glad you feel the same was as me. I find it especially wonderful when teachers are thinking about these things, since it is their students who are the ones most affected. While it will be a challenge, I’m looking forward to the disemination of increasing numbers of books with queer and subversive themes, but I wonder, how difficult is it to teach these things to children? I firmly believe that children learn through popular culture – so we can begin our struggle here, but from a teaching perspective, is it possible to educate children to see multiple readings? Or is that just too complicated… do these things need to be explicit for certain age groups to understand? …thoughts and more thoughts.

          I’m SO ready to change the world, and SO excited to discover all the people out there who want to help. We can do it! One book, one review, one comment, one discussion with a child, one discussion with an adult, one tweet at a time!

          Post a Reply
  2. Someone fantastic gave me the Reformed Vampires Support Group last year, I think I’ll have to make the time to read it now.
    I love your ability to find queer readings in things, because I love active reading, and I love how when we talk about texts the view you present is so different to my own it opens up a whole new text to me.
    That said, I really don’t think this is one of the times when you’ve done some coded reading, sounds pretty obvious.
    While I absolutely think there need to be overtly gay characters and narratives in YA fiction, and all fiction, I also think that maybe the queer subtext has a continuing value. What follows is conjecture lacking in any experience or basis, so I could be right off. But, because society is hetro-normative, I suspect that is some ways, for some, the experience of realising their sexuality is a process of learning to read against the grain, of being open to the unexpected, of realising difference. The process of realisation and decoding in a queer subtext could give a reader the tools of reading ones own identity… possibly. That idea might be incredibly wanky and preposterous, but the coded possibility of difference, rather than an explicit certainty of it, could be useful in opening the issue from an us/them binary to something more subtle and possible, where the possition of the self, and others, is less assumed and more open, fluid. I think this is maybe particularly important for queer teens who don’t fit the stereotype.
    But this is all just based on a gut feeling. I’m interested in your much more informed thoughts.

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  1. 2012 AWW Challenge Young Adult Speculative Fiction Wrap-up « Australian Women Writers Challenge - [...] Reformed Vampire Support Group (review by Paula McGrath) and The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group (reviewed by Holly Kench) by Catherine [...]

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