Emily Koll, protagonist of Heart Shaped Bruise, is proof that you don’t need a ‘likeable’ main character to write a good novel. We know from the outset that she’s killed someone, and in spiteful red text on the back cover (looking, chillingly, like it was written in blood), she makes it all too clear that she doesn’t regret it either. Emily can be unbelievably selfish, vicious, defensive and downright nasty. But we’re still compelled to read her story, and this is in no small part thanks to Tanya Byrne’s ability to tell a totally engrossing story.
Written with searing honesty, Emily’s notebook narrative (found, we are told, in the room of the now closed Archway Young Offenders Institution) half relates her experiences in the psychiatric unit and half tells us in flashback how Emily ended up there, becoming the ‘most hated teenager in Britain’ en route.
Initially, it seems that her motives are straightforward vengeance: Juliet has stabbed her gangster father, she wants payback. But as the story unfolds it becomes clear that it’s so much more than that: she wants to annihilate Juliet utterly, for reasons as much to do with her as they are to do with her nemesis. The passages about her time in the institute are more than a simple case of a damaged girl picking up the pieces too. Through her interactions with her fellow ‘crazy’ inmates, and the well-meaning Doctor Gilyard, we get some telling insights in to her turbulent, complicated character. As events progress, it becomes apparent that she is messed up and broken because of how events have influenced her, not because she’s just plain ‘evil’.
Heart Shaped Bruise challenges its readers to withhold judgement and empathise with an, at times, unsympathetic character. It certainly helps that Byrne has a priceless ability to inject sassy humour in to the bleakest of stories. She may have attitude, but her quick wit, keen intelligence (she’s far more clued up on classic books, film and music than the average teenager) and, yes, emotional vulnerability make her an intriguing, complex character. This is a hard hitting read, and intense, raw emotions are bled on to the page. This is gritty teenage fiction as it should be, and anyone in to this genre should definitely make room for it on their shelves.