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.
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.