I’ve written a little bit previously about Young Adult literature. It’s a ripe field for the pickings, with its mainstream appeal as well as a litany of problematic story elements. It also can be really addictive. Most of the genre is leaning towards science fiction/fantasy at the moment, centering on young women in impossible situations, with fast-moving plots and titillating romances. The YA market has become one of my favorite indulgences.
Enter Shatter Me, written by youthful and beautiful new author Tahereh Mafi, one of the most anticipated releases of last year, already with two sequels (the novella Destroy Me, and the second part in the planned trilogy Unravel Me which dropped last week), and the movie rights sold before the first book’s release. It is the story of a 17-year-old girl named Juliette Ferrars with an uncontrollable and isolating ability – she can kill with a touch. To make matters worse, Juliette lives in a world that has depleted its resources and poisoned its atmosphere, leaving it open for an organization called The Reestablishment to come in and take control and hoard what’s left. When the novel opens, Juliette has been imprisoned in some sick hell house version of a mental institution for close to a year, barely clinging to her identity, wishing for freedom and love.
Shatter Me is the type of YA fantasy that is light on world building and high on emotion and elaborate prose. It’s not perfect, to say the least. What I found fascinating about the novel though was its implications about sexuality.
What’s immediate striking to me is how the novel as a real sense of sexuality and sensuality. A personality, shall we say. However, there is also a theme of dominance and violence that colors this, and creates a character that is both heavily defined by her sexuality and by actions put upon her. As she learns to connect with people for the first time in her life, Juliette is repeatedly defined as an object, seen as something others can use and act upon, even in a relationship that supposed to healthy and loving. Through the story elements as well as the dialogue and prose, a picture is painted of a sexual landscape fed by power struggles and destructive passions. It’s also an important aspect of the novel, as this is a story about a young woman who can either create or destroy with a touch.
(Spoilers for Shatter Me and Destroy Me under the cut)
The conflict of the novel begins when Juliette’s monotonous, isolated world is interrupted when Warner, a young powerful Reestablishment leader decides he wants to take advantage of Juliette’s abilities and removes her from her prison. He brings her to his home that seems to be part mansion, part fortress, surrounds her with armed guards and gives her a closet full of pretty dresses. He claims he wants to empower her, give her an opportunity to strike back at those that hurt her in the past. His way of doing this though is by controlling nearly every aspect of her existence.
He turns to Adam. “I’m surprised you didn’t tell her to change her clothes like I asked you to.”
Adam sits up straighter. “I did, sir.”
“I like my clothes,” I tell him. I’d like to punch you in the eye, is what I don’t tell him.
Warner’s smile slides back into place. “No one asked what you like, love. Now eat. I need you to look your best when you stand beside me.”
Warner says he wants to change Juliette’s life, but really he’s simply repeating old patterns that she’s already quite used to. Living with parents who were terrified of her and her ability, she was abused by her family, experimented on and treated by medical professionals against her will, until she was finally locked away after accidentally killing a child. And while she makes an attempt to hold her own against Warner, even her own inner monologue seems to betray her.
My body is a carnivorous flower, a poisonous houseplant, a loaded gun with a million triggers and he’s more than ready to fire.
Juliette is repeatedly referred to or treated like an object, and the concept of her being used as an weapon by the Reestablishment is probably one of the more metaphorical ways. In every other instance its quite literal, and the sexual component is very thinly veiled. Even her ability, which Warner deems so extraordinary, is subverted when he forces someone else to touch her in order to gauge the effect of her powers. It’s actually kind of mind boggling that he managed to flip a situation where a woman should be feared for her touch, into one where she is afraid of being forcefully touched. He does this again and again, goading and manipulating her into revealing what she’s capable of. While some of these moments are pretty impressive (at one point she becomes so enraged at him that she walks straight through a concrete wall), it dissociates her power from herself. Every time she rises to his antagonism, the moment belongs to him, not her.
Shatter Me hinges itself on the significance of contact. Other YA novels talk about the frisson between young lovers, but here it’s far more meaningful. Throughout her life, whenever Juliette has touched someone, she has inadvertently hurt them. It had hindered not only her relationships with people and how she relates to the world, but how she sees herself as a human being. Finally, though, she meets the first person she is able to touch without doing harm, and he’s a young beautiful man named Adam who has adored her since childhood. They collide rather enthusiastically with passion, and quickly begin to devise a strategy to be together and escape Warner’s plans.
I never felt comfortable reading the scenes between Juliette and Adam, though. Adam is a sweet guy, I’ll give him that, and he seems to both admire and care for Juliette. However, whenever he shows physical affection towards her it’s described in language that is far from gentle. In fact, every time they make contact it’s him touching her, and Mafi’s prose is so intense, so violent that, to put it bluntly, it reads like he is molesting her.
He’s everywhere up my back and over my arms and suddenly he’s kissing me harder, deeper, with a fervent urgent need I’ve never known before. He breaks for air only to bury his lips in my neck, along my collarbone up my chin and cheeks and I’m gasping for oxygen and he’s destroying me with his hands and we’re drenched in water and beauty and the exhilaration of a moment I never knew was possible.
One of Juliette’s defining traits is her self-hatred. She feels immense guilt for the damage her ability has caused, and years of mistreatment have led her to believe she is something to be reviled, not loved. This I think is where a lot of her desire to be undone comes from, and why being touched by Adam is both a revelatory and catastrophic moment for her, experiencing both elation and violence at the same time. It also feeds her distaste for Warner. Adam cares for her because he was a witness to the good she has done and her efforts to be a good person, while Warner fixates on the negativity in her life, her power and also how they have a common damage. When Warner expresses interest in her, she is disgusted and calls him a monster, a word that she often uses against herself as well.
What Adam claims to find so attractive about Juliette is what he sees as her inherent goodness. As a child, he saw a girl so altruistic and open-hearted that he could not help but fall in love with her. What he was actually seeing was a girl so terrified of doing wrong that she spent every minute of her childhood and adolescence attempting to be self-sacrificing and acquiescent so that people would eventually accept her. He was essentially watching her strip herself of her identity and will in a desperate attempt to protect herself, which ultimately does not work (the incident that led to her imprisonment occurred when she tried to help a boy, not realizing that she would hurt him by touching him). And he admires her for it.
Juliette’s touch is lethal, it induces pain and drains life, and later we learn that it also comes with super strength. Far from a vulnerable, wilting flower she’s initially presented as, Juliette is in fact near god-like. And yet somehow, she is consistently portrayed as being an object to other people’s actions, valued for her sacrifice and suffering. She is touched rather than doing the touching herself. When Warner discovers that Adam is immune to Juliette’s ability he says, “He can touch you?” and then “Has he touched you?” rather than the more intuitive “You can touch him?” Juliette’s ability is not portrayed as an active force, but rather a barrier between her and those who want access to her. And the novel is not shy about how many people do – from being surrounded by all male military personnel when she’s held captive by Warner (there is actually no other female characters in the entire book), to even when she’s supposedly safe and a doctor feels a sudden need to remark on her astounding good looks.
However, this illuminates and interesting contrast between Warner and Adam, as well as Warner’s character as a whole. Adam seems to genuinely care for Juliette, but his relationship to her is defined by what he does for or to her (comforting her when she’s upset, kissing and touching her, helping her escape), rarely what they do together. Warner makes no bones about his intentions, and never denies being a generally awful person. But he changes the dynamic by inviting her to use her abilities against him. Whereas Adam says, “I can touch you,” Warner says, “Touch me.”
Not that Warner doesn’t do plenty of unwanted touching, because he certainly does. At one point, he rips open her dress, with the obvious intention of exposing and threatening her. Except that he only did it because Adam was the one who ripped the dress in the first place, during a heavy-petting session just a few minutes before, Juliette just hadn’t noticed. Adam’s sexuality is painted as aggressive and overpowering, a destructive force just as much as Warner’s desire for power is, the difference is Adam is considered welcome due to their shared attraction.
Warner’s self-destructive tendencies are something that’s explored in the aptly titled novella, Destroy Me, which is an interlude between the first and second books in the series, told from Warner’s point of view. The relationship between dominance and love is also a present with Juliette’s influence, this time through Warner’s abusive relationship with his father. At one point, Warner lays prone in bed, sick with fever after being shot, while his father berates him, and then threatens to strangle him. All of this is done with an air of casualness; the elder man’s violent touches are described much the same way his gentle ones are.
Likewise, Warner’s obsession with Juliette hinges on his desire for her to not just hurt him but to destroy him, in a rather intriguing twist of events (though, really, the title should’ve given that away). Sure, Warner has plenty of aggressive habits, and he still expresses urges to be the active participant to Juliette’s assumed passive role (at one point he even imagines that she would fear his lust for her, even though Juliette shows no sign of being timid about sex), but when he begins to dream of her, she appears as a powerful woman who has him at her mercy.
She searches me with those odd, blue-green eyes and I feel guilty so suddenly, without understanding why. But there’s something about the way she looks at me that always makes me feel insignificant, as if she’s the only one who’s realized I’m entirely hollow inside. She’s found the cracks in this cast I’m forced to wear every day, and it petrifies me.
That this girl would know exactly how to shatter me.
It’s the language that is the strongest agent in creating this theme. Read a few reviews of Shatter Me, and you’ll see Mafi take a lot of heat for the book’s highly lyrical prose style, that indulgences in run-on sentences, repetition and piles metaphor upon metaphor in order to paint that mental state of a girl on the edge of sanity. However, the preoccupation on being the object of dominance and aggressive acts as a positive, almost purifying state of being is something that is also embedded in the books vocabulary. It’s in the titles of the books themselves.
I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing. I think, if played right, we could have a YA book series with a lot to say about sexuality and agency. Juliette’s sexuality is inextricably linked to her ability. Her relationship to touch defines how she engages with other people and how strongly her bonds develop with them. I think this perspective allows Juliette’s relationships with Adam and Warner to be viewed a lot more ambiguously, which could mean really interesting things for what Mafi has to say about love, sex and girls with superpowers. As Shatter Me concludes, Juliette begins to find a place for herself in the world, taking the first steps on her journey to becoming the subject instead of the object of her story. Hopefully, she will grow into a character remarkable for her individuality, rather than how she is acted upon by others.