Sunday, 19 June 2016

"Nina is Not Okay" Shappi Khorsandi

Nina is Not OK
I was intrigued to read this book. I first saw Shappi Khorsandi a few years ago doing stand up in Harpenden Town Hall and it was a truly entertaining evening. She was witty, humorous and had a charismatic stage presence. Her observations and asides about Harpenden were sharp, accurate and met with lots of laughter and applause. I have also read her first book "A Beginner's Guide to Acting English" which is very amusing, fluent, well executed and once more, hugely entertaining. So I know she can write a non fiction memoir and I know she can make me laugh. I also know she's intelligent, quick witted and articulate. So can she write a novel? I had to find out!

Yes she can!

Meet Nina. Seventeen, sitting her A-Levels, looking forward to going to Warwick University, living with her mum, little sister of who is she incredibly fond and her step father. She has good friends, a good social life and does well at school without much effort. But.... her dad died when she was 9. Her boyfriend - her first love- has gone to Hong Kong for a gap year and met someone new almost instantly. Her mum is preoccupied with her new husband and her 5 year old sister Katie.

Nina enjoys a good party. So what if sometimes when she wakes up she can't remember every single moment of the night before - who doesn't? Her exploits are the top conversation in the college canteen and her friends love to hear her "entertaining" recounts of the latest mischief or adventure. But then one night that changes. She finds herself in a taxi on the way home with even more missing pieces of the jigsaw than usual. And as she tries to convince that nothing can really have happened, her life begins to spiral out of control. Increasingly isolated from her family, on a constant hunt for some "fun" and escape from her worries and "boring" life pressures, she begins to drink more and party harder. Until Nina is absolutely, definitely not okay.

Khorsandi is very at ease in her delivery of Nina's narrative and the voice of the 17 year old is generally well captured and authentic. I found some of it a little grating to begin with but once I had got used to Nina, I discovered her to actually be a more rounded and more complex character than I had credited- perhaps the mistake that everyone in Nina's life also makes. Her candid, unaffected comments like "I used to think quieter people were emotionally complex- it's really disappointing when you realise they're not," capture the damning arrogance only a teenager can get away with and although indicates to the reader that she is still young and naive, they also make the reader smile in agreement at her perception. Or her honest, unaffected remark that she made Jamie laugh until "snot came out of his nose." There were frequent remarks from Nina which made me smile - either in recognition of my 17 year old self or in her unwitting self awareness. She is a heavily flawed character who makes numerous mistakes and some terrible judgements but ultimately she is endearing, very likeable and, I imagine, very representative of numerous teenagers today.

There are moments when I cringed and almost wanted to turn to the next page but I had to remember this is a young girl navigating life with very little role modelling or guidance - which is really Khorsandi's message. This is reiterated by Nina herself towards the end of the story as she contemplates on importance of the people who step in to save you and guide you back along the right path. Equally cringing/ humiliating / hilarious is the behaviour of heartbroken Nina whose obsessive texting, emailing and stalking on Facebook is reminiscent to all of us I'm sure. A rite of passage in itself. As she says, "I actually typed that and pressed 'send'. I actually let him see it. Writing poetry when you've been dumped should be a very private affair." I couldn't agree more!

Khorsandi's comic voice pervades the narrative. As Nina descends further into a path of self destruction she keeps the tone light and engaging with comments like "someone has moved the kitchen wall. It's not in its usual place. I smack into it." We then watch hopelessly as Nina begins to drink to "shut her mind up"; her deceit and denial tricking herself more than those around her. And then, all too quickly, she is falling in a downward spiral. Her self esteem, angst and all the perennial teenage problems of relationships, fitting in, gaining independence start to get the better of her. All while sitting some of the most demanding exams of her school life.

I'm interested to know what inspired Khorsandi to write a novel about a 17 year old. It seems to me she is interested in looking at young people's attitudes to relationship, sex and alcohol. Things have changed so dramatically for young people in today's society. Relationships are much more fluid and formed unconventionally. Promiscuity and multiple relationships more common and seemingly more acceptable. Life moves at a faster pace; switching, changing and fusing in an unpredictable way. There are no jobs for life. There is no economic security. Families are made up of different generations, marriages, relationships - non biological relationships sometimes meaning more (or even replacing) biological bonds. Life is very public, "followed" by thousands of people you think you are "connected" with; open for "comment" from anyone who has access to google and WiFi.

However, I wasn't sure if Khorsandi was simply presenting us with a coming of age tale -a dramatic roller coaster of emotions as we join the protagonist on a huge journey, or whether there was any underlying motive to offer a warning to the younger generation. The writing isn't patronising or moralistic and I suspect Khorsandi has merely chosen a story line which gave her the opportunity to write something that would appeal to a contemporary audience, full of colourful scenarios and colourful characters, with humour and dry wit.

Not that it's all "laugh a minute". There is some very well navigated discussion about rape and consent. Again, with such a change in attitudes to relationships and sex, the boundaries become less clear and more complicated- even to those involved. But young women, and men, still need to be clear what is acceptable and what is morally responsible or right. There are still boundaries. There are still laws. People still need protecting. Just because someone drinks too much or chooses to enjoy a casual dalliance does not mean they can be exploited or treated disrespectfully. There is also probably a bigger void between parents and children as they negotiate their way through this transition, which in itself makes "guidance" difficult and fraught.

Probably a very good book for a Sixth Form Tutor Group discussion or a Reading Group. Several reviewers think it is a book that needs to be read by all teenagers, boys and girls alike, as the messages are important and well presented.

Khorsandi is clearly an expert "people watcher". Her characters are created with swift, deft strokes and her dialogue flows naturally. There are cliches and a certain degree of obviousness within these characters but that is also partly due to the topic and kind of "chick lit/ young adult" style of the novel. Despite the subject of the novel, this is actually an easy read and one that mimics the fast, interactive, almost dismissive nature of the contemporary young people who take centre stage within the drama. I enjoyed it. With lots of stories looking at the impact of social media on teenagers in more extreme sexual contexts, this book offers something perhaps more relevant or more relatable. I think it will be a hit.

My thanks to Netgalley for an advanced copy of this novel in return for a fair and honest review.

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