Kim Hood’s debut novel Finding a Voice was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and won praise for its honest, clear-eyed account of the challenges of disability, and of living with someone suffering mental illness. Her new book, Plain Jane, is an equally thoughtful and truthful account of mental illness, described as part of a dramatic story, and is deeply moving.
The story is told by Jane, almost 16, growing up in a very small town in Canada. Jane’s little sister Emma has cancer and has been in hospital almost continuously for the past three years. The effect on the family is devastating: visiting Emma in hospital, struggling to cope with the emotional and financial pressures takes up all the girls’ parents’ attention. Though she loves her sister very much, Jane can’t help but feel angry. With her parents’ attention elsewhere she skips school, avoids her old friends, and spends hours simply sitting with her boyfriend in his basement watching him play video games. An encounter with a young man called Farley seems to open up new possibilities, but readers will notice that Jane’s behaviour is getting wilder and more erratic. A deterioration in Emma’s condition brings things to a crisis point and prompts Jane to remember another shocking family tragedy, one that she has kept hidden from herself. In a frightening episode, Jane swings from feeling invisible, but responsible for all that is wrong in the family, to frenzied action, devising wild plans to save her sister from the pharmaceutical companies she decides are poisoning her. It leads to collapse and hospitalisation.
For all the trauma and pain described the book ends positively and on a note of real hope for the future. In Jane, Kim Hood has created a complex, fascinating character, whose experiences provide readers not just with an understanding of bi-polar disorder, or of serious illness, but insight into her own individual understanding of love, life, friendship and even art. It’s an involving, ambitious and rewarding read.