By Allie Skalnik
I’m someone who can work my way through nearly any book, in grueling half an hour segments no matter how uninteresting. But when I really love a book, you better believe I’m spending the next fourteen hours on it: sleep is for the weak. Sawkill Girls ranked somewhere in between those two extremes for me. There was enough mystery to keep me engaged for a few hours at a time, but it still very much felt rough around the edges. Every few chapters or so I would look up and ask myself, why am I not getting into this yet?
There are a few explanations for this. Aspects of the book struck me as almost childish, which is surprising because it attempts to tackle feminism, girlhood, sexuality, and even rape. Still, there were moments where it was very clear to me that this was not the story speaking, rather Claire Legrand. These earnest, preachy segments distracted from the story more often than not and made it difficult to pin down the message of the novel.
Most importantly, this book didn’t make me feel anything. I was constantly awed by the visuals and impressed with the worldbuilding, but I wasn’t very compelled by the characters themselves. They’re not bad. They’re really very fine characters, but they weren’t stellar. For some reason, I just didn’t connect with Zoey’s spunkiness or Marion’s level-headedness or Val’s inner conflict. That’s not to say that there was anything wrong with it. I just didn’t jive with these characters, and they once again made the book feel childish. One character I would like to legitimately critique would be Grayson. I think if I connected with Zoey more it would be fine, but Grayson’s only role in the book is to support Zoey. Honestly, I love that. I enjoy that this is Zoey’s story and not Grayson’s, but because I didn’t connect with Zoey, Grayson’s shallowness became all the more apparent. Grayson is mostly a plot device, and this works when the plot device genuinely reveals something new about a character or works as a foil. However, Grayson does none of the above.
This is a book that tackles sexuality without actually tackling sexuality. Perhaps the best way to describe it is that it represents sexualities more than it actually deals with them. Zoey is asexual. This book is not about asexuality, so I don’t believe that the topic gets the attention it deserves. Sawkill Girls is not trying to have a conversation about asexuality, and if it is, it’s not doing a good enough job at it. It’s not a theme that the book goes back to throughout the story, and because Zoey as a character is not fully developed and nor is her asexuality, it reads as a clumsily added part of Zoey’s personality rather than an important and well-represented topic.
Similarly, Marion and Val’s relationship is not supposed to be a thorough look at a queer relationship. It does not tackle Marion and Val’s sexualities in the slightest, and it doesn’t represent the process of grappling with one’s sexuality, which is a core aspect of many queer experiences. This is because Sawkill Girls is not a book about Marion and Val falling in love, just as it’s not a book about Zoey being asexual. It’s ultimately a book about what it means to be a girl in a world pitted against you.
Its willingness to tackle female issues is where Sawkill Girls shines. While its commentary is not always the most refined and can come off as preachy, this book is nothing if not earnest. It feels authentic and honest even if its commentary around rape is messy and it brings up issues more often than they are addressed. What I enjoyed most about Sawkill Girls is that it felt like a new voice had been introduced to the conversation. It felt young and new and hopeful. It’s not a refined book, but I’m looking forward to seeing what Claire Legrand does next. Her passion is obvious, and it’s clear that she has the tools to write something incredibly meaningful and compelling. Sawkill Girls wasn’t that for me, but I think if YA literature starts going the same way, and it serves to move literature as a whole in the same direction, then I’m looking forward to what comes next.