I know you’ve been waiting three months for this letter, but I have to start by saying that this isn’t an apology.
Tanya Byrne’s YA debut is a novel I have been dying to read for a while and my post-Jan uni deadline downtime seemed like as good a time as any to finally pick up this dark and twisted YA story. Set out as the lost diary of a teenage girl, Heart-shaped Bruise tells the story of Emily Koll, an inmate awaiting trial in a psychiatric ward of Archway Young Offenders Institution for an unknown crime.
Byrne does a great job of subverting our sympathies towards a character whose behaviour is reprehensible. She exploits the natural morbid curiosity humans have to try and understand why people act the way they do, creating an addictive and raw narrative that keeps you guessing right until the end. Emily isn’t a pleasant character but she doesn’t come across as inherently evil either. It is the age-old question of nature vs. nurture that comes into play but in Emily’s case I truly feel that it’s a flip of the switch and change of circumstance that caused her to be in the situation she is in and that’s what makes her dangerously relatable.
Emily’s story is told in the present tense, with certain features of her present situation causing reminiscent flashbacks that help to explain her situation as well as subtly and slowly expose her crime. Emily is a fully rounded character whose story is expertly paced but I would have loved to have explored her past just as fully – it felt a little skimmed and surface-deep. Her relationship with Juliet, though purposefully superficial, felt underplayed at times and Emily’s struggle with action and inaction could have been drawn out a bit more for me. A reader could argue that these subtleties keep the boundaries between good and evil blurred, as there are no extremes one way or the other, and Byrne does indeed excel in walking that very thin line throughout.
Heart-shaped Bruise focuses on the concept of revenge and if, once realised, if it can ever be worth it. Who is it that you’re really hurting when trying to hurt someone else and can satisfaction ever be realised when hunting for vengeance? This novel represents a small window in someone’s life, Emily’s stream of consciousness as she is waiting trial and it’s quite harrowing to think that her fate, though completely unknown, has been decided regardless of how you as a reader feel towards her by the end. Byrne’s ability to humanise the seemingly inhuman is effortless and the reader becomes completely immersed in Emily’s story and in understanding who she is and why she is where she is.