“She wondered if he was trying to impress her and for what.”
This is a pull quote from the mind of Martina, the protagonist in Colleen Smith-Dennis’ Inner City Girl.
I am hesitant to write about this book because roughly four years ago, without knowing it, I was in competition with it for the inaugural Burt Award for teen/young adult Caribbean fiction. It placed third, I placed second with Musical Youth, and Ad-Ziko Gegele’s All Over Again won. But I wrote about All Over Again when I read it, so why hesitate now?
I liked Inner City Girl for the most part and mostly for main character Martina – whose strong personality including her distrust of people’s intentions, comes across in the pull-quote above. When you get to know Martina, you’ll understand why she’s guarded. Smith-Dennis, a Jamaican author, puts Martini through the ringer and yet she never loses her drive to succeed. She is quite literally a girl from the inner city – and that means exactly what you think it means. She is a child in Jamaica living in the worst poverty, with a mother who barely provides for her three children by shady means the specifics of which are never quite spelled out until it ends quite abruptly and tragically. Martina’s life is marked by tragedy. She doesn’t know her father, her brother starts slipping by the wayside, and something (rather someone) silences her spirited sister. Also there is bullying, violence, death, loss, the noise and tumult of ghetto life, the messy drama and hypocrisy of uptown life, classism, insights in to the particular challenges of gender and poverty, and a kidnapping; all while Martina tries to keep up with her studies and swimming lessons at this fancy private school her big brain has won her a spot in, if not the money to pay for it (that a politician pays her school fee, at least at one point, noted as an aside, is another insight to Caribbean life and the patriarchal nature of its politics).
This is a mix of a coming of age story and hero’s journey, with lots of hurdles, lots and lots of hurdles; Martina has her eye on a goal in a world apart from her own, and there’s always something happening but never too much that it stretches credulity, or strains the characterization.
As a Burt book, it’s a good pick for a Caribbean teen – a quite moral pick notwithstanding the seedy world in which Martina lives (Martina comes off quite conservatively Christian, though there’s no sign of church, in her inner judgments). The thing that threw me off somewhat – well, two things… one was the perspective from which the story was told. Largely we are shadowing Martina in a close third person but then, throwing off the rhythm, we have a point of view shift in one instance to her brother, in another to her mother. Just the once in each case. It’s interesting and we learn a lot but the shifts do feel random. Random in the sense that you have an established point of view and the shifts are sudden, and used only because the author has information she wants the readers to know so she body-jumps to give them the information before returning to the established pov (as opposed to trusting the reveals to the pov already established or having a shifting pov throughout). Another thing was the register. The vocabulary, syntax, vernacular, the general formality of the language, just the way things are said, makes the book feel less teen/young adult and more like it’s being told by someone quite removed who has particular insights to the teen’s experience, maybe a former teacher from her prim private school – maybe the principal who offered to pay for her lunch or the form teacher. Obviously not but my point is it doesn’t quite feel ripped from the mind of a teenage girl (even a teen as erudite as Martina). So, both of those things pulled me out of the story. That said the story has a central character to root for, well established settings, a nice, natural build, and some highly dramatic sequences such as the fight on the bus and the kidnapping ordeal which will have any teen reader riveted. Moreover, though she does struggle practically and emotionally, Martina through her steadfastness is a good role model for the target age group. An engaging read.
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