“The Torn Skirt” is more than a novel about teenage rage and lust: it is an expose of the rarely visited underworld of girls left on their own, girls who drink, take drugs, and girls who have sex for enjoyment and profit. Willing or not, some of these girls fall into their roles, if not with a sense of ease, at least with a peculiar pleasure in their abilities, their toughness and their fragilities. They burnish away innocence, trading dolls for feminine armor.
But there are other young women who, although tempted, are reluctant to cross the line they know will forever throw them into the mix of castaways and misfits, a group of girls that has been abandoned, forgotten or simply left to its own devices. As they struggle toward maturity, these young women yearn for freedom, but often find that freedom turns out to be nothing more than an ephemeral hope that dissolves into drug addiction, prostitution and homelessness. Serious matters to be mulled over – and without the influence of adults, fathers or mothers, bad things are bound to happen. Inevitably, these girls are not as tough as they think they are.
One of the girls teetering on the brink of this harsh freedom narrates The Torn Skirt. Sara Shaw is a sixteen year-old attending high school on an island off the coast of Canada. Like most teenagers depicted in fiction, she dreams of leaving her home, of “moving to New York to become a model” perhaps. Unlike most teenagers depicted in fiction, Sara does not spend her time discussing pop idols or planning her dress for the prom, mooning over her boyfriend or writing sentimental poetry in her journal.
Sara can be dangerous – in her thoughts and actions. She writes in her journal but her words become evidence against her, examples of her predisposition to violent acts. She carries a knife and uses it. She is asked to leave high school. She is too smart for her own good, especially when it comes to irritating the police officers and lawyers that eventually drift into her life. As she is questioned by an officer in her bedroom for her role in the attempted murder of a man, she asks him if questions about her mother are relevant to the case. His responds – “Relevant? That’s a big word for a little girl.” In this exchange, author Rebecca Godfrey captures in two lines of dialogue the contradictions inherent to Sara’s character: an unswerving protectiveness that Sara harbors toward her absent mother and the suspicions she harbors toward all authority figures. The reader senses that Sara’s sarcasm with the police officer is more than a self-defense mechanism because there is nothing automatic about Sara’s personality. She is contemplative and slow to judge. She is also observant – a quality that does not serve her well when confronted with the more unpleasant truths about the “upstanding” men and women who populate her town.
The narrator’s odyssey begins with a sighting of the elusive Justine, a runaway who lives on the rooftops of buildings. From there, Sara is pulled into a cast of people who live outside the boundaries of convention, outside the boundaries of the law. There is Amber – who can pick any lock or steal any item she wants. There is China – who can tempt a john into a hotel and roll him, absconding with his money. And there is Heather – a teenager gang raped by high school boys who laugh about the event in front of her. Sara mixes with them all, observing, chronicling their small successes and their inevitable failures to conform to the rules laid down for them by the juvenile corrections officers, the mental health professionals, pimps and drug dealers.
In this first effort, Godfrey is talented at describing life in the eighties when feathered bangs and Love’s Baby Soft were the rage; when high school teens could smoke their own hippie parent’s home-grown marijuana. Her prose evokes a decidedly savage tone; unfettered by the indoctrination of the past decade against the horrors of casual drug use and causal sex. In Sara’s time, the stoner kids get high at school, wandering back into classes and assemblies as though they had just come from study hall.
Godfrey is equally talented at depicting the shocking ways young girls inflict pain on themselves, whether through the use of alcohol, drugs, or self-mutilation. In the juvenile detention facility, Sara tells us this:
Amber did it first. She showed me her scars. They started on her wrists and ended on her shoulders. Some of the scars were redder than the light of the room. The older ones were faded, raised lines like slivers of ivory. She took off her bra. There, above the nipple on her small breast, was a star with five points. It was so perfect and red, it might have been engraved in wood; it seemed impossible that the star was actually carved into her skin.
This chilling scene evokes flesh, blood and the indifference to their own bodies that will ultimately, the reader understands, lead to these girls’ emotional and physical decay.
With praise duly given, there are rough patches in the story. While the prose is appropriately stark, befitting the subject matter and setting, Sara comes off as too cool, too in possession of her wits. She does not show enough surprise or fear, her character rings too harsh for a girl her age. Though it is possible that a sixteen year-old could maintain her composure during various shocking scenarios – watching a ten year-old boy perform fellatio on an early twenty-something skater idol, watching men and women shoot themselves full of heroin in the midst of an orgy, watching the girl in the torn skirt commit a shocking crime – it is unlikely. Even the most hardened adults would cry, would feel fear and shock. Sara’s reaction is muted and cold. While she tells the reader what is happening in these scenes, she does not allow the reader to know what she is feeling, or if she feels anything at all.
Despite Sara’s emotional coldness, the novel lives up to the promise of its metaphorical title. The girls in the book are undeniably feminine, full of small womanly graces and devoted to nurturing each other, even if they will incur jail time in the process. But these are girls who are torn, youth taken from them crudely or given away for no reason, an updated and feminine version of Esau and his pot of porridge.
Rebecca Godfrey is, simply, a very good writer and The Torn Skirt will resonate with teenagers and adults alike. She seems to owe a debt to Mary Gaitskill (whose blurb graces the book’s back cover.) The Torn Skirt depicts characters as acerbic, dark and complicated as the characters populating the books Bad Behavior and Because They Wanted To. To make such comparisons is to pay Godfrey a considerable honor and we can only hope that her next work will build on her strong start.
Ms. Godfrey’s book is available for purchase at Powell’s.