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Dangerous games

Published Nov 27, 2016 07:12am

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In Megan Abbott’s contemporary noir thriller You Will Know Me Devon is a gymnastics star destined for the biggest league of all — the Olympics. She may only be a teenager, but it’s clear to everyone around her that she’s the only star of the small-town gym at which she trains. Her parents, Katie and Eric, have mortgaged themselves economically and given up their own emotional wellbeing and peace of mind to support her career; their lives revolve around Devon’s training and competitions, their only friends and associates are the parents of other gymnasts, all of whom know that their daughters will never be at par with Devon. Her younger brother is accustomed to tagging along for hours, doing his homework in the bleachers of stadiums while his sister shines on the bar, the beam, the vault. Coach Teddy, known affectionately as the ‘gymnast whisperer’ at the BelStars gym is grooming Devon for Olympic glory and everyone knows she is their ticket to fame.

Devon herself is incredibly driven beyond her years — almost preternaturally so. But what is the price for fame and glory? What does a teenage girl have to give up in order to be so much more than average, so much more than human, almost? Everything seems to be on the right path until a late night hit-and-run accident takes the life of much-loved Ryan, a young man who works at the gym and is in a relationship with Coach Teddy’s niece, who herself teaches the younger gymnasts. Ryan’s death throws the gym and the BelStars’ contained, tightly wound world of schedules and perfection into chaos. Coach Teddy is distracted, the girls are grieving, even Devon is swayed from her usual steely resolve and her mother Katie cannot figure out just why the usually icy Devon has been so badly affected. Her brother has nightmares that feature Devon flying, strange coincidences seem to arrive at Katie’s doorstep even though she attempts to placate her family and herself. Here, Abbott’s skill at building suspense is masterful as Katie attempts to navigate the strange changes taking place.


A look at the darkness behind the scenes in the world of competitive gymnastics


You Will Know Me is told primarily from Katie’s perspective. Her days are filled with taking Devon back and forth to gym meets, driving her around for competitions out of town and managing Devon’s ego, emotions and expectations of herself, too. Katie is also often nervous, holding in complicated emotions, maternal and otherwise, struggling with her own anxieties and inadequacies. In many ways, though, she’s like any mother — always wanting the best for her child, always ready to protect her at all cost. Except that sometimes the costs are too high. Katie cannot entirely understand what Devon is going though — mothers may have been teen girls themselves once, but it isn’t as easy to relate to your own daughter when she becomes a teenager. Abbott delves into the emotion-filled world of adolescence well, a world often full of anxieties and guilt and confusion. Of course, Devon is no ordinary teen as we are told again and again. But she’s also a “sensible, sensible” girl, she’s a “girl who [knows] how to protect herself. Never a daredevil, never stunting without a safety mat, without spotters. A girl for whom instability was the ultimate enemy. Who had never known divorce or slamming doors or slamming fists. A girl whose home was a peaceful sanctum, even the basement [was] padded. A life that had to be made safe because of the risks she put her body through. She was the most dangerous thing in her own life.” And so Abbott, as she always does so well, pulls us up short: Devon … is dangerous? In what way? And to whom? Is her desire to be the best, her parents’ desire for her to be the best what is dangerous about her?


“In proud-parent moments, of which there were too many to count, she and Eric would talk about feeling Devon in the womb, her body arching and minnowing and promising itself to them both. Soon, it turned to kicking. Kicking with such vigor that, one night, Katie woke to a popping sound and, breathless, keeled over in pain. Eric started helplessly as her stomach seemed to spasm with alien horrors. What was inside her? they wondered, her rib poking over her sternum, dislocated while she slept. It was no alien, but it was something extraordinary.It was Devon, a marvel, a girl wonder, a prodigy, a star. Devon, kicking her way out. Out, out, out. — Excerpt from the book


Abbott’s writing never fails to amaze. Half the joy of reading her books is to simply marvel at her command over language, at her ability to write taut, fraught sentences that perfectly reflect the equally tense psychology of her characters. That she’s astoundingly good at creating teenagers will be of no surprise to anyone who has read her last two books, Dare Me and The Fever, but here, Abbott also shows her ability to delve into the psyche of the parents of teen girls, those who are on the sidelines of their daughters’ lives, trying to help the girls grow, trying to save them from the horrors of growing up into painful adulthood. In the world of competitive gymnastics, though, there are more horrors to contend with. This is a world that “aged girls and kept them young forever at the same time”, changing their bodies before puberty did, making them into solid, hard little battle tanks capable of incredible feats of strength and agility. Adolescence and its physical changes cause shudders amongst the girls — they know that growing breasts or curvy hips can forever reduce their chances at being good, better, best gymnasts. In the world outside the gym, teen girls relish their entry into adulthood, but within the BelStars there is a constant stress, a fear that ageing will take away what the girls want most, as they attempt to remain childlike and yet are preternaturally mature and ambitious. “Being a girl is so hard,” Katie thinks, “and it only gets harder.” Harder still, in the manic, controlled and frightening world of competitive gymnastics.

Abbott writes a clean, ruthless narrative. She dives deeply and precisely into the world of female competitive athletics, into the families and relationships that are caught up around the lives of these very young women whose every spare minute is dedicated to their bodies and to developing power and ability beyond what most teens can imagine. There are magnificent moments of extreme tension and almost cliffhanger-like suspense, though Abbott’s writing is never short of anything but controlled and sophisticated — there are no melodramatic reveals to be found here. She is an elegant, fiercely intelligent writer, one who, in You Will Know Me, offers brutal insights into relationships, family and even parenting. As Katie says, parenting is about “slowly understanding your child less and less until she wasn’t yours anymore but herself.” This is the process in which we are caught up in You Will Know Me, watching horrified with bated breath, unable to look away.

The reviewer is a book critic and editor of the Apex Book of World SF 4. She also hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com.

You Will Know Me
(NOVEL)
By Megan Abbott
Little, Brown and Company, US
ISBN: 978-0316231077
352pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 27th, 2016

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