Refreshing twist on a coming of age story
I was constantly surprised by Shirley-Anne McMillan’s new book, The Unknowns. She takes the familiar story of a girl who is a little different and who is finding her way in the world as she comes of age, and adds fresh, original elements to the personality of Tilly and the narrative. The risks feel very real. The discovery of the world similarly feels authentic and exhilarating. Seeing a character encounter her own specialness and strength even when she is initially unable to see it in herself, got me deeply invested in what happens to her and the unconventional friends she meets late at night.
Beyond the engaging plot, I love the atmosphere of the book, these late night gatherings and meetings that appear sinister at first but then surprised me by the warmth and friendliness within. Much like those misconceptions I can have of a person on first encounter, McMillan’s book invites the reader to look with clearer vision that overturns negative judgements. She presents an edgy Belfast filled with grit and decay that contain surprising nooks and crannies for community to pop up like flowers growing in the cracks of abandoned parking lots.
Playing with Perspective
I was also surprised by the ways she helped readers consider perspective. Who gets to tell a story affects the story and how people respond to it. Reading about the events in the book as they happen and then reading the flattened out, misleading, and negative commentary about these same events as reported in the newspaper, got me thinking about the injustices that happen from misreporting events and slandering people in public and private forums.
Taking on Big Issues
As with all of her novels, McMillan does not shy away from real life and hard topics–the loss of a parent, sectarian violence, and issues related to sexuality, gender, and orientation.
She is never preachy. Instead she provides visions of what acceptance and understanding look like next to the harsh realities of what ignorance and fear inspire. It is in the sudden unexpected beauty of the communities she envisions and the love and art these communities foster, that McMillan provides an antidote to negative forces in the world.
I recommend The Unknowns by Shirley McMillan!
Weeks after reading the book the images remain and the characters feel like real friends I met who are still living their lives and standing up for their friends. I highly recommend, The Unknowns by Shirley Ann McMillan. Available in the UK and USA from booksellers and on Kindle.