Writer: Sally Partridge
Publisher: Human & Rousseau
It is a common complaint – from teachers to academics to the man on the street – that children simply don’t read anymore. While this might very well be true, authors such as Sally Partridge have found a strong and receptive audience writing under the rubric of Young Adult Fiction. After writing the critically acclaimed The Goblet Club in 2007, Partridge released the equally well-received Fuse in 2010. She makes a welcome and striking return with her third novel for young adults entitled Dark Poppy’s Demise. Amid current conversations as to how literature aimed at younger readers should be defined (and as to what should be included under the guise of fiction for young adults), Partridge has been praised from various sources for her willingness to tackle difficult issues such as alienation, belonging, sexuality and identity in her writing. Her latest novel is no different, offering a consistently intelligent and informative exploration of the difficulties teenagers face in a world where technology is as inviting as it is potentially threatening.
Easy to follow yet engaging, the main plotline of Dark Poppy’s Demise centres on the destructive relationship an emotionally insecure teenager, Jenna, has with the mysterious and dark Robert Rose. Living with her distant and often absent father, Jenna doesn’t have many friends at school, has an overactive imagination, and behaves in typical (and credible) fashion as a young teenage girl. Jenna feels misunderstood, even by her best friend Anisa and brother Ian, and she misses her artist mother terribly. To make matters worse, her crush of many years, Eric, has hooked up with Claire, “the prettiest girl in school”, leaving Jenna heartbroken and miserable. She finds a measure of comfort if not solace online, where she exists as “Dark Poppy”, an alter ego that allows her to share her talents in photography and adopt a more “edgy” persona.
After Jenna then receives a friend request on Facebook from Robert out of the blue, it doesn’t take much for her to fall head over heels in love with him. Robert uses almost every trick in the book to convince the unsuspecting Jenna that he genuinely loves her. Soon the couple spend almost all of their time together, much to the chagrin of all around her, including her online “best friend” Twiggy, who is perceptive enough to doubt Robert’s true intentions.
It would be remiss to give away any more of the plot, as a fairly substantial amount of tension and intrigue accompanies the reader’s (and Jenna’s) journey into an obsessive relationship. One of the novel’s main strengths is the way that it moulds fairly predictable and familiar elements into a narrative that speaks of genuine insight into and understanding of the teen psyche.
While the handsome, unnaturally affectionate Robert Rose is evidently too good to be true, Partridge slowly but surely reveals a power play of emotional blackmail and manipulation by Robert that spirals out of control. Rather than letting Jenna become bogged down in a one-sided, clearly artificial infatuation with the aloof Robert, Partridge draws the reader in, letting us share in the euphoria, uncertainty and eventual dread to which her heroine is subjected.
To the author’s credit, Jenna’s teenage narcissism and emotional roller coaster, over the top as it may seem at a few points, ring true, and Partridge’s portrayal of Robert as a veritable Edward Cullen is surefooted and smart, always winking at the reader, yet never putting the tongue too far in cheek. The implicit contrast between the personas of the innocent, naïve Jenna as “Dark Poppy” and the veiled threat of “Robert Rose” hiding his prickly “thorns” is a subtle master stroke, and I really enjoyed the quietly escalating sense of menace and shifts in mood that the lean force of the prose is able to render.
The cast of supporting characters, such as Anisa, Ian, Jusuf, Hayley and Claire, are uniformly well drawn, and are well integrated into the thematic ebb and flow of the novel. The only minor fault one could find here is that the tense conclusion of the novel feels a tad rushed, painted more broadly and with less detail than the rest of this polished work. That being said, the clever epilogue makes up for this small drawback, and the reader finishes Dark Poppy’s Demise satisfied and eagerly awaiting its sequel, yet again reminded of the duality that defines our interpersonal interactions facilitated by technology.
Young adult readers across the board will certainly enjoy this fine book, and many will be able to identify with the feelings of hopelessness, insecurity and anxiety that seem so definitive of the road to adulthood. Partridge’s latest is therefore a welcome addition to a burgeoning literary genre, and a work certain to entertain and inform in equal measure.