'Pretending', by Holly Bourne: review
CW: rape, sexual assault
So if you’ve ever read any Holly Bourne, you may not be surprised by the content warning. The first book of hers that I read was The Places I’ve Cried in Public, which is about a girl starting sixth form college who ends up in a relationship that quickly becomes abusive, both emotionally and sexually. Bourne doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, but she consistently approaches them with sensitivity and compassion. Pretending is about April, a woman in her thirties who began working for a charity for survivors of sexual assault after her own rape several years prior. She’s become disillusioned with relationships, with men, and the final straw comes when her newest date shows little compassion or understanding when she reveals her trauma after a triggering event. In a masochistic ‘social experiment’ she pretends to be the perfect woman. Gretel. Gretel is fun, cheerful, always up for sex. Gretel isn’t neurotic. Gretel doesn’t have any emotional baggage. Gretel certainly isn’t processing trauma. Gretel has a strict set of rules for how to behave if you want a man to love you. April, however, is angry. Angry and hurting and lonely. Gretel quickly reels in Joshua, but it’s April that falls in love with him.
Bourne had me hooked with the opening pages. She captures a whole spectrum of complicated feelings about relationships, men, the patriarchy, and relating to oneself after trauma. Ultimately, it’s a novel about April learning to care for herself again and learning that having been abused doesn’t mean that she has to abide by the patriarchy’s rules in order to be safe and happy. In fact, she’s realising that the only way to move forwards is to stop obeying Gretel's rules. This book is an absolute gut-punch in places. There are some heart-breaking moments, but also moments of incredible optimism and hope. It also feels very authentic. The moments of spiralling panic attacks and the sense of being stifled are very strong, which is part of why this book isn’t an easy one to read although it is very well-written. Incidentally, I was reading it during the recent intense heatwave and Pretending is set in London during a heatwave, which was an interesting coincidence. Too immersive, perhaps? I'm not quite sure.
Bourne presents this first person narrative which can sometimes lead to quite an introverted story, but the strength of the voice and characterisation makes this the novel’s greatest asset. It’s also surprisingly funny, but largely in a cynical, dry way. It was the kind of book that I kept wanting to read bits of out loud to others. It’s the kind of book that makes me want to go and read everything else Holly Bourne has ever written.