Leah Greene is dead. For Laine, knowing what really happened and the awful feeling that she is, in some way, responsible set her on a journey of painful self-discovery. Yes, she wished for this. She hated Leah that much. Hated her for all the times in the closet, when Leah made her do those things. They were just practicing, Leah said. But why did Leah choose her? Was she special, or just easy to control? And why didn’t Laine make it stop sooner? In the aftermath of the tragedy, Laine is left to explore the devastating lessons Leah taught her, find some meaning in them, and decide whether she can forgive Leah and, ultimately, herself.
Friendships are meant to drift, not haunt. But since Leah Greene’s death, Laine is haunted by the memories of their childhood friendship – by the signs Leah left, the questions Laine didn’t ask and the pain of a terrible cycle that was inflicted on both girls.
‘Lessons From a Dead Girl’ was the 2007 young adult novel from Jo Knowles.
I owe big thanks to Nicole for recommending me this book – but for also forewarning me of its disturbing brilliance. Even with ample warning, I wasn’t prepared for ‘Lessons From a Dead Girl’ – but, then again, I don’t think any reader will be guarded against the terrible events explored in this book, and that’s probably a good thing for the impact Jo Knowles leaves behind.
We meet Laine the day she is told that her childhood best friend, Leah Greene, is dead. They haven’t been friends for a long time now – not since Leah developed a reputation she seemed to revel in. But one last explosive confrontation between the girls is haunting Laine as much as the memories from long ago, the ones that are resurfacing with evil intent in the wake of Leah’s death.
Laine was never quite sure why Leah chose to be friends with her – Leah was beautiful and popular, her parents were rich and everyone wanted to be her friend, but she chose Laine. But what started as an idyllic friendship, and entry into Leah’s beautiful life, soon soured … Laine’s memories take us from the present-day tragedy; to the slow-burning devastation that was Leah and Laine’s ‘dirty’ little secret.
Jo Knowles is a beautiful writer, who writes sinister and moving stories. In ‘Lessons From a Dead Girl’ she takes us back to Leah and Laine when they are in primary school. Knowles starts by showing us a normal, healthy friendship … and then slowly but surely introduces us to feelings of unease as Leah’s little girl games with Laine become something truly disturbing and over-sexualised, clearly hinting that this young girl has been exposed to abuse for much of her young life.
The following weekend, Leah comes to my house. She pulls me straight into the doll closet. She doesn’t ask or even tell me what we’re going to do. She’s rough and angry. It doesn’t feel like practice. It feels like punishment.
I hold myself as still as I can, my eyes squeezed shut, feeling like I deserve it.
The build-up to Leah and Laine’s inappropriate play is sickening, both for Knowles’s masterful foreshadowing and her expert narration in letting Laine talk about her memories with creeping sense of unease in the present (and new perspective gained in her teenage years). What’s equally disturbing are Leah’s reactions after what takes place in the doll closet - when we, as readers, see that she is clearly mimicking the actions of her abuser in letting Laine think what they did was normal, and their little secret.
More than 90% of juvenile sexual abuse victims know their perpetrator in some way, and that’s true in ‘Lessons From a Dead Girl’, when Laine meets the family friend who started this awful cycle for Leah. What’s also disturbing is the fact that about 30% of abused children will later abuse their own children, continuing the horrible cycle of abuse. These are two statistical facts that Jo Knowles communicates through the narrative of ‘Lessons From a Dead Girl’. There are so many reports out there on child sex abuse – but Knowles’s book is about cutting to the quick and offering a tangible story of how far-reaching that abuse is, like a ripple affect that continues to widen.
I struggled to get through ‘Lessons From a Dead Girl’, because it’s such a disturbing story, so powerfully written by Jo Knowles. Despite its darkness, I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone – because it’s a story that must be read, especially by young adults. There are consequences laid out in this book, repercussions explored and victims given a voice as they admit the abuse that shaped them. I cannot recommend this book enough.