Friday, May 3, 2013

My Book of Life by Angel (by Martine Leavitt)

Martine Leavitt's My Book of Life by Angel is inspired by true crime and set in Vancouver's seedy Downtown Eastside before the infamous serial killer Robert Pickton was captured and convicted, but Leavitt's characters are purely fictional. They know that women have been disappearing and that the police appear to be doing little about it.

Angel is a 16-year-old prostitute and this is her journal, written in verse. She has a regular john who pays her to read to him from Milton's Paradise Lost. Lines from Milton are interspersed throughout: "Innocence, that as a veil had shadowed them from knowing ill, was gone..."

I had high expectations because I have enjoyed Leavitt's earlier work, especially Keturah and Lord Death. I also love verse novels and gritty YA. For a book about prostitution, drug addiction, family dysfunction and a serial killer, My Book of Life by Angel is surprisingly tame. Gritty enough for a 12- or 13-year-old reader, I suppose, but not for anyone who has read Ellen Hopkins' Crank.

A pimp, Call, first befriends Angel at a shopping mall, then gets her hooked on some kind of illegal drugs, which are only ever referred to as candy or sugar.

"And then Call said,
you wanna fly, Angel?
He said, you want candy for that sweet tooth of yours?

At first it was so fun, Call's candy,
and all the missing of Mom went away
and I was all
I'm so baby uptown
I'm so baby bless my soul
I'm so baby high heels
I'm so baby rock and roll."

Later, Angel quits cold turkey, refusing the drugs Call offers, even though it makes sex work harder to face. Her withdrawal symptoms over several days include vomiting "bits of stomach," a "bit of spleen," a "bit of liver," and finally, a "chunk of heart." I found this all a bit too precious. The scariest parts of the story are the johns, including one who viciously attacks Angel's neighbour on the stroll; a creepy baby dentist; and a corrupt "call me Daddy Dave" police officer.

My enthusiasm for this book is only lukewarm, but I do think that Angel is a great character. My Book of Life by Angel recently received the CLA Young Adult Book Award. It will be appreciated by teens (and adults) who prefer the safer end of gritty realism.

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