Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie, by Jaclyn Moriarty

Somehow, when I went on vacation, I took only solemn and serious books with me. Unsurprisingly, I had no interest in them once I hit the lovely warmth and sunny skies of Palm Springs. Accordingly, I picked this up as a YA that Tonks might enjoy and that I could read as well.

Written in first person , primarily as a mix of letters, notes, and diary entries, Bindy Mackenzie is in Year 11 of her high school near Sydney, Australia. An unusually bright girl, Bindy has a long record of achievement, and now feels she must continue to perform at the highest of academic levels, placing first in every class, contest and competition. She has wound herself up really tightly and one fears for her ability to stay healthy.

This year, a new course has been introduced: Friendship and Discipline, immediately known as "FAD." Bindy is one of 8 students, none of whom are her usual crowd. This group also has a new teacher, Try Montaine, and a new student, Finnegan Blonde. Following her usual pattern, Bindy objects to this course as interfering with her studies, alienates her classmates, and evidences every symptom of being headed for a major mental breakdown.

Accordingly, I found myself reading this book actually leaning toward the pages, as if to physically see what was going on behind the text. Bindy is simply not a trustworthy narrator--I couldn't accept what she said was happening at face value, but I wasn't sure I could see what was going on. There were clearly major cracks in her parent's relationship, Bindi herself seemed a disaster about to happen, but I couldn't really suss out what this book was doing.

Obviously, it could be a "Breakfast Club" story, where the seemingly mismatched group of misfits bonds over their common humanity, and the Brain lightens up, the Party Girl stops drinking, etc. etc. And for a bit, it looked like that was beginning to happen -- sort of, and I started puzzling out what each kid needed and which other kid was the match. But Bindy continued resolutely to be Bindy--the socially inept whiz kid with a prickly and largely unlikeable exterior.

Okay, maybe it was "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime." Unreliable narrator who has no idea that s/he is unreliable. Bindy doesn't have Asperger's Syndrome, but perhaps she is obsessive-compulsive, or simply too self-absorbed to see what is happening. However true that is, there was no obvious story going on that I could pick up, the way there is in "Curious Incident."

Maybe it was "Dead Poet's Society?" Not that I've seen that movie, but isn't that about the role of a special teacher in the students' life? Try could have been that teacher, and Bindy the student who learns to see the whole of life through her teaching.

Then, one weekend, Try invites her FAD group to spend the weekend up at a place she has in the mountains. And I had serious deja vu, since I had read this before, when it was ostensibly an adult novel called "Special Topics in Calamity Physics," by Marisha Pessl. Test this theory with me:

Academically over-performing girl? Check.
With an inflated opinion of her father? Check.
Living an uprooted life, moving nearly every year? Check.
Book smart, but ignorant of real life? Check.
Placed in a small group of unusual students? Check.
Lead by a charismatic teacher? Check.
Who brings the students to her house? Check.
Suspicious circumstances that the group has to solve? Check.
Teacher not who she appears to be? Check.

Still, this is a better balanced book than "Special Topics." The thing that is going on under the surface actually shows up in clues scattered across the book. The year before, Bindy overheard two substitute teachers talking about a Polish exchange student, and one teacher slapped the other. Bindy jumped up and offered her card, saying "I would be honored to be your witness" in what she assumed would be an upcoming assault suit.

Turns out that the conversation was about a new computer program being installed at the school, and the "Polish student" was actually the password. The problem is that the program was a scam, designed so that the installers could get back in at any time, implant fake teacher info and bilk the system through fake salaries, etc. If Bindy knew what was going on, she would have to be removed. So Try and some other people, were feeding Bindy small, regular doses of arsenic to disorient her. Try was supposed to find out if Bindy had figured out what that overheard conversation was about. Finnegan's cousin was one of the two women in that conversation, and he thought the car accident that killed her was no accident. He came to find out what had happened to her, and to protect anybody who might become endangered.

In the end, Try locks Bindy in an booby-trapped office, nearly killing her with arsine gas. Her FAD friends have figured out about half of the "real" story, and help her escape the fatal poisoning. So there is an element of "Breakfast Club" after all.

This is a fairly ambitious trick to pull of in a YA novel, but it seems to have worked. The scenes of normal high sschool life were believable, and Bindy's situation is sad, and she can't even see it.

In teh end, Bindy survives the murder attempt, although she was in a coma for several weeks. She is able to connect emotionally with her family, and now has different friends and a different approach to school. She is really no longer viewing school as an experiment she is observing, but as life she is living.

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