Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“I can draw the truth out of people…literally.”
Seventeen year old Bea Washington has just been released from a tough three month stint in drug and alcohol rehab. As if coping with the real world again wasn’t enough, Bea is also struggling with an unusual talent that manifested when she got sober. Always an artist, Bea now finds that she can draw the truth out of people, looking into their minds and drawing what they see, as if her hand has a mind of its own. She hoped that the power was merely a bizarre symptom of withdrawal, but it quickly becomes clear that the power isn’t going away. Recently beaten and left for dead, Bea’s classmate Willa Pressman is the latest victim of a local serial killer who is bound to strike again. Willa claims she can’t remember anything about her attacker, but when Bea draws the truth, she realizes the situation is even more complicated. With her parents keeping her on a short leash, Bea must try to solve the mystery of the serial killer, with or without Willa’s cooperation.
Bea has a spirited narrative voice and a dark sense of humour about the problems in her life that mostly made her pleasant company. Although she seems judgmental and sarcastic when we encounter her at her first AA meeting, it quickly becomes clear that she is hiding her own vulnerabilities and judging her own failures. Once the mystery begins, the novel is harrowing and fast paced. The only drawback to the quick pacing is that characters seem to have weirdly candid conversations with one another on relatively short acquaintance, usually in service of moving the plot forward. Unlike many mystery protagonists, who seem to have a natural talent for sleuthing, Bea is a blunderingly bad detective, struggling to use her power for a beneficial purpose. Overall, she was a wonderfully flawed and intriguing protagonist.
In additional to the regular textual narration, Sketchy also includes drawings, handwriting, and text messages. Although appropriate to the premise of the book, they added very little to the novel practically speaking. The drawings also occasionally mark a scene transition, which led to a few instances of confusion on my part about what was going on. What really did work, however, was the handwritten chapter titles, which demarcate the number of months, days, and hours that Bea has been sober, a constant reminder that she is struggling not to use despite the stress of coping with her new ability.
In a short novel dealing with a barrage of serious issues, some topics inevitably receive short shrift. However, there were a few instances where things went downright wrong. I was initially happy to see a young adult novel with a mixed race protagonist and a gay secondary character, but Samms’ treatment of the characters quickly demolished any enjoyment. She repeatedly refers to Bea’s “nappy” African American hair, and casually uses the term “tranny” not once, but twice. In the first instance, Bea describes her gay friend as a “tranny” for wanting to check out her closet, which almost caused me to set down the novel then and there. Also disturbing was Samms’ choice of a love interest for Bea. In a novel about sexual violence and exploitation, setting up your seventeen year old protagonist (who is a vulnerable recovering addict) with an adult (and a police officer no less) is more than a little discomfiting. Although the romance was mostly only hinted at, likely as set up for future books in the series, it nevertheless seemed inappropriate. Although Samms clearly dismisses any form of rape apology based on fashion choices or intoxication, this potential relationship cast a shadow of statutory rape over the story. While the novel has an interesting premise and a quirky main character, the above issues left me with serious reservations.