by Martine Leavitt
Publisher: Groundwood Books
Reading level: YA
Book type: verse novel
When sixteen-year-old Angel meets Call at the mall, he buys her meals and says he loves her, and he gives her some candy that makes her feel like she can fly. Pretty soon she's addicted to his candy, and she moves in with him. As a favor, he asks her to hook up with a couple of friends of his, and then a couple more. Now Angel is stuck working the streets at Hastings and Main, a notorious spot in Vancouver, Canada, where the girls turn tricks until they disappear without a trace, and the authorities don't care. But after her friend Serena disappears, and when Call brings home a girl who is even younger and more vulnerable than her to learn the trade, Angel knows that she and the new girl have got to find a way out.
(synopsis from Goodreads)
I love how verse novels can be short on words but long on impact. I didn't think this would necessarily be my type of book. Historical fiction about a teenaged prostitute? That's a little bit out of my comfort zone. But My Book of Life by Angel was a story that I just couldn't put down. I read it all in one sitting, transfixed by the awfulness of the main character's situation and the lyrical beauty with which she told the story.
This book takes place during the time when sex-trade workers were disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside; this happened in the late 1990s. It must have been an absolutely terrifying time if you were in that line of work; knowing what we know now about what was actually going on makes you feel fear for the characters in the story. Robert Pickton was eventually convicted of the murders of six women and charged with the murders of twenty more. In the book, there are references to a "Mr. P.", presumably Pickton; one of Angel's co-workers warns her about him and his van, hinting that he may be behind the disappearances of the women. But the police wouldn't listen, and the terror continued for years.
Against this backdrop is the story of Angel, a sixteen-year-old runaway who falls into the lifestyle after being lured there by her "boyfriend", Call. Call is a real piece of work, though he seems to think of himself as an upstanding citizen, an entrepreneur who's trying to clean up the trade by getting it legalized. He spends much of the book threatening and blackmailing Angel, until she finds a reason to stand up to him: to keep Melli, an eleven-year-old girl that Call wants to groom into a prostitute, safe.
I don't know if it was due to the verse format, or if this is just a really skilled author, but the characters were all so well developed -- despite the lack of physical descriptions. We get to know these people through what they say (and how they say it) and what they do (and how they do it). Leavitt makes the outcasts of society into people that we truly come to care about. They all have their own stories, their own reasons for being where they are. Even the johns were unique and colourful characters; they were more than just one-dimensional, stereotypical villains.
I'm not quite sure who I would recommend this book to. Fans of verse novels... contemporary fiction... historical fiction... Or maybe just fans of beautiful words. (Despite the subject matter, this book is not overtly graphic. There isn't even any swearing.)
Even if you think this book is not your thing, it wouldn't hurt to give it a try. It's a quick read, and you never know: you might find you really enjoy it.
Overall: 4.57 out of 5