Kissing Emma by Shappi Khorsandi

The Blurb On The Back:

Emma is beautiful.

Men stare at her.

Girls are jealous of her.

Yet Emma is trapped.

Trapped by her beauty and trapped by a lack of prospects.  She sleeps on her nan’s sofa and rushes to cleaning jobs after school.  She dreams that there’s more to life than just scraping by.

Then Emma is tempted by two men who promise her the world in exchange for modelling work.  But there’s a dark side to their offer that she will only discover when she’s in too deep …

Can Emma break free and take control of her own life?

You can order KISSING EMMA by Shappi Khorsandi from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

13-year-old Emma Lyons lives with her mum on a council estate.  Her dad died a couple of months earlier and everyone on the estate thinks that her mum murdered him.  They don’t know – or don’t care – that he was violent and abusive to both of them, or that he slept around with other women and spent his money down the pub.  They think that he was a “good man” and a “good laugh” and that Emma’s mum killed him by pushing him over the balcony of their twelfth floor flat.  

Emma’s mum tells her to ignore the gossip and the abuse and rise above it, but that’s difficult when people put dog poo through their letterbox and paint “murderer” on their front door.  She’s lucky to have a best friend in Deana (a dry-witted girl who wears hijab with strict Iraqi parents who supports her against the bullies and haters), and neighbours like Sheila and Mike and Suze (a trans woman and her mum’s childhood best friend who works as a social worker).  Even so, Emma’s mum is keen to move elsewhere keeps telling Emma that being with a rich man is the key to escaping all their problems.  Emma though thinks that if she does well enough at school – and particularly drama – then she may find a way out through education, maybe even become an actress as she seems to have a gift for it.  

The problem is that the older Emma gets, the more beautiful she becomes and with her good figure and pretty face, begins to attract the attention of the boys in her class.  Emma is flattered by that attention and although the forthright Deana steers her away from the wasters, when the two girls get into trouble at school, Deana’s parents decide that Emma is a poor influence and demand that Deana stop having contact with her.  Increasingly ostracised at school, Emma finds herself a target and it’s not until a group of boys attack her that her mum finally takes the decision to leave the estate behind, moving them in with Emma’s grandmother, aunt and two older cousins on the other side of London.

There, Emma takes the advice of her grandmother and aunt and changes her name from Emma Lyons to Emma Hamilton and starts a new school with a new, more confident persona.  As she makes new friends, and finds encouragement in her acting from drama teacher Mrs Delerosh, she finds that the boys are drawn to her more than ever and now she’s finding some of those boys difficult to resist.  And then one day she meets Joe and Zane from a modelling agency, who say they can make her a star …

Shappi Khorsandi’s contemporary YA novel uses the life of Nelson’s mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton, reimagining her as a girl on a council estate.  Khorsandi is strong on prejudice, the difficulties of having a low income and the low expectations of teens from these backgrounds, but the story is repetitive with a series of selfish or abusive men taking advantage and Emma not dealing with it, which I found dull, while the pacing is lop-sided.

I’m going to start this review by saying that notwithstanding my criticisms, there is a lot to enjoy in this book.  I think that Khorsandi recreates life on the council estate in a fairly believable way, from the fact that other people think they have a right to know her business and judge them for it, to the hostility that the two face once Emma’s father dies.  Equally, I believed in the two schools that Emma attends and especially the attitude of the teachers, who (with the exception of Mrs Delerosh) are dismissive of her ambition and are quick to assume the worst of her because of where she’s from.

Also good is the friendship between Emma and Deana, who is a really well drawn character – witty, forceful and confident but at the same time, unable to stand up to her parents who have high expectations of her and low opinions of Emma.  I think that the book really lost something when her friendship with Emma comes to an end (although it is necessary and understandable in the context of both plot and Deana’s character) and although new characters Matilda and Soreya share the same function, they lack that sense of spark.  If Khorsandi ever wants to revisit Deana in a novel of her own, I would definitely want to check it out because I’d like to see what happened to her.  I’ll also say that Khorsandi does a good job of representation in this book – while Emma is white and working class, this is a book with Iraqi Muslim, Somalian Muslim and other black and Asian characters as well as a trans character in the form of Suze. 

Emma’s mum is a well drawn and complicated character – a woman with low expectations of life, at odds with her own mum and sister and constantly disappointed by the men in her life.  She wants the best for Emma but at the same time is convinced that only a rich man can help her, which leads to her encouraging some bad decisions even though she works hard, taking on cleaning jobs to pay money to her mother and save up for a place for her and Emma.  Equally, it becomes clear that she’s learned this behaviour from her own mother and is driven in part by a rivalry with her sister, who has her own insecurities.  I also enjoyed the ambiguity as to whether she did push her husband over the balcony, which remains throughout the whole book.

Emma is also a pretty well drawn character.  I believed in her relationships with her mum and Deana and her desire for reinvention when she gets to a new school.  I also believed in her reactions to discovering that boys find her good looking and how her need for love coupled with the advice of her mum drives her to bad decisions and her disappointment when even the boys she thinks are nice turn on her.  The problem is that each of her relationships turns out in the same way and that constant cycle of being wooed before being betrayed begins to get old quite quickly, the only difference being the way that the older men such as Joe and Zane and later, the supposed ‘good guy’ Con, treat her.  There is an element of morality warning to the Joe/Zane storyline with Khorsandi emphasising the exploitation that can occur for young girls drawn into modelling.  However even allowing for Emma’s age and inexperience, it became wearying to see someone who doesn’t seem to learn from previous mistakes and who doesn’t really understand and doesn’t seem capable of reining in her own extreme (and at times self-destructive) behaviour.

This brings me to my other issue with the book is that with the exception of Deana’s friend Elis, the boys and men in this book are basically trash – from Emma’s violent, abusive father, to the boys in her school and the older men she meets who basically just want to have sex with her and don’t care about her feelings and even her aunt’s boyfriend who behaves in a creepy way, there is not one sympathetic male in the book.  I do not deny that boys and men can suck and treat women and girls like sexual objects who only exist for their pleasure or put them on a pedestal and then get angry when they don’t meet their expectations.  But the fact that there is not one decent, truly supportive male in this book became a bit of a problem for me by the end of the book.

In terms of the Lady Hamilton inspiration, I can’t say that I picked up on this until I got to Khorsandi’s author’s note at the end.  I genuinely applaud how Khorsandi wanted to create a character who had nothing but her wits to live on and how society judges women on their looks, which makes it easy for girls to fall into exploitative relationships.  I also think that she accomplishes two of these aims, the issue (for me) is that I didn’t get much of a sense of the Emma here living by her wits – more that she’s driven from relationship to relationship and her own bad decisions.  It’s this, coupled with the way she keeps repeating that behaviour, that meant this book didn’t really work for me.  Saying that there was enough here for me to be keen to read more of Khorsandi’s work – especially in the YA market.  

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