Lily is sixteen and feels utterly trapped.
Bullied at school, she doesn’t want to lay her unhappiness at her parents’ door – they have problems of their own. When the kids at school finally go too far, Lily and her family must face reality and decide if she’s going to fight back or remain a victim.
But is stepping up simply about getting revenge? Or about taking charge of her life once and for all?
It’s difficult to discuss Louisa Reid’s verse novel, Gloves Off, without mentioning the emotional impact it has on the reader. It is a novel that makes you feel, instantly and viscerally, on behalf of the characters. As we listen to Lily tell her story, from bullied school girl to empowered boxer, we feel every bit of her sadness, fear and hard-won hope.
From the opening page, where she is thrown to the ground, her palms ‘stinging shame’, Lily is made to feel like her body is wrong, fair game to the bullies who torment her. In one particularly harrowing scene, Lily is coerced into dancing with vile classmate Aidan Vaine. While the language is not overly graphic, it is incredibly effective, making Lily’s horror our own:
he’s got my clothes, my flesh
my body in his hands
and he’s pulling and grabbing, riding me –
on my back, so heavy he’s crushing me,
my brain exploding
no one hears me
or knows I’m screaming.
The formatting of the poems often mirror Lily’s feelings, with words dragging down the page or split apart, gaps appearing like held breaths or punches to the gut. This technique is especially powerful during the boxing scenes, where it mimics Lily’s movements, capturing the energy and emotions of the fight.
Louisa Reid also includes the voice of Lily’s mother, Bernadette. Through Bernadette, we see the lasting effects of bullying and body shaming. Fired from her job for being “too fat”, Bernadette has spent years struggling to leave the house, instead earning money by creating beautiful clothes for other people. While Lily loves her mother, she cannot help resenting her, seeing her anxiety, the fear that keeps her trapped in the house, as a weakness, a future Lily dreads for herself. As Lily’s and Bernadette’s stories converge, however, Lily begins to recognise her mother’s strength and resilience. This mother-daughter dynamic, a messy thing at the best of times, is one of the novel’s many highlights.
While reading Gloves Off, I was reminded of the brilliant television series My Mad Fat Diary. Like that show, Gloves Off explores mental health, body image, friendship and first love with genuine insight, realism and grit. As with Rae, the main character of My Mad Fat Diary, Lily is a character that readers will root for. Louisa Reid’s writing style, each verse acting as a short chapter, makes the story compulsively readable. As such, it is ideal for reluctant readers or for those who like to finish a book in a single, gripping sitting.
Review by ELS librarian Samantha