‘The Burning’ by Laura Bates ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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‘The Burning lights a fire in you – one that makes you want to fight for change and ignite sparks in others so the fire spreads and spreads’ Holly Bourne

Fire is like a rumour. You might think you’ve extinguished it but one, creeping, red tendril, one single wisp of smoke is enough to let it leap back into life again. Especially if someone is watching, waiting to fan the flames…

New school. Tick.

New town. Tick

New surname. Tick.

Social media profiles? Erased.

There’s nothing to trace Anna back to her old life. Nothing to link her to the ‘incident’.

At least that’s what she thinks…until the whispers start up again. As time begins to run out on her secrets Anna finds herself irresistibly  drawn to the tale of Maggie, a local girl accused of witchcraft centuries earlier. A girl whose story has terrifying parallels to Anna’s own…

Thank you to NetGalley, Simon and Schuster UK Childrens and Laura Bates for the chance to read and review this novel.

“Girls are like marshmallows…”

I did not expect to love this book so much or to be so consumed by it. It truly was like it had lit a fire in me and I just had to keep reading. This young adult debut is an important story about life for both teenagers and their parents in the age of social media.

15-year-old Anna and her mother have moved from Birmingham to the tiny fishing village of St Monans in Scotland to start anew. There was an incident that led to Anna’s friends turning against her and was so traumatising that she can’t bear to even think about it, though she is still haunted by unwanted flashbacks. She starts St Margaret’s Academy with a new surname, has deleted all her social media accounts and no longer has a phone so that there’s no way what happened can follow her. Though she initially blends into the background anonymously, people are curious about her and she becomes friends with two girls Cat and Alisha. But she is torn between happiness at her new friends, guilt at keeping secrets and the terror of everything being discovered.

“We are the granddaughters of the witches you burned. And we’re not putting up with it anymore.”

When she is assigned a history project that requires her to write about a local person she stumbles on a footnote about a young woman tried for witchcraft in the 17th Century. With the help of local author and amateur historian Glenn Sinclair  she searches for more information and is soon absorbed by Maggie. As she learns more she finds that she has more in common with her subject despite having lived 400 years apart: it seems some things don’t change but evolve into a different form. Vivid dreams begin to make her understand Maggie in a very real way and the assignment becomes a distraction from her own problems as her secret is somehow discovered and she finds herself reliving her worst nightmare once again…

“The words aren’t the worst part. It’s the names…Somebody I would have called a friend”

While the teenage years have never been easy for any generation, the current generation face unrelenting pressure from the ubiquitous presence of social media and technology. The parents of today’s teens find themselves parenting children in a situation they couldn’t have dreamed of and are often at a loss how to help or guide them. I know this because I’m one of those parents with two of those teenagers. I have have seen the bombardment that teenagers face with online bullying. It is vital that as parents we understand what they face and equip them with the tools to navigate these issues.

Though this is a book that covers the pressures faced by teenage girls it doesn’t look at the situation from a biased and sexist viewpoint. The author explores all sides involved in these types of incidents: the boy and girl themselves, the friends on both sides, the parents and the school. She reminds us of the double standards that see boys congratulated and girls shamed, where girls are often the worst culprits of slut shaming and that any boy that dare stand up and refuse to take part can be subject to homophobic slurs from the others. Also covered is the complexities faced by teenagers: girls trying to walk the fine line between frigidity and sluttish behaviour, and boys under pressure to ‘act like a real man’. Schools and parents have their roles to play too and we see how so often the wrong decisions reinforces these hypocrisies.

“Peer pressure is a powerful and ancient force.”

I liked Anna as a protagonist and thought her inner monologue encapsulated her feelings in such a way that it was like I was experiencing them myself. She was real and raw and what happens to her are things that are experienced by others every single day. She is someone young girls can relate to and anyone else that reads the book could learn from. When I learned that Maggie was a real character from Scottish history I liked her even more. She is a strong woman who sees the wrong in how she’s being treated and bravely stands up against it. Having Maggie’s story included in this book not only empowered Anna, it serves as a reminder that the things happening to her aren’t new. These things have been happening for hundreds of years, they just shift their shape a little as the cultural landscape changes and technology advances. Instead of a shaming stool in a church people now write slurs in comments on social media or via messages. This means there is a more intensified experience that lasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and not just a few hours on a Sunday. Seeing these parallels in the two women’s stories was disheartening but the fact that we are now talking about these issues more and making changes hopefully means we will see less and less of such one-sided conduct.

The Burning is a riveting, culturally relevant book that everyone should read. It is one that will hopefully make a difference: empowering those who feel weak or under duress, and bring empathy and pause to those who might pressurise, judge or debase.

Out Now.

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