Kelly’s Bingham’s first novel Shark Girl was inspired by a rash of shark attacks on the CA coast in 2001. What emerged is the (fictional) tale of Jane Arrowood, a normal fifteen year-old aspiring artist, who went for a swim in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now she is minus her right arm, and barely dealing with her own pain and depression, let alone the reactions of her family and friends. Jane struggles through phantom pain from her amputated arm, fitting for prosthetics, returning to school, and relearning to button her pants, but eventually reaches a place of peace that – while not perfect – allows her to continue on with her life.
A semi-epistolary (ie: told through letters, newspaper articles, journal entries, etc) novel, Jane also relates her ordeal in short prose poem chapters of inner-monologue. This allows a really nice meld between the outside world’s reaction, and Jane’s own thoughts. A lot of complex problems are brought up, as Jane and her friends and family struggle to address the un-addressable – is it better to ignore the missing arm or to talk about it? What do you do when the cutest boy in school suddenly starts talking to you, but you’re pretty sure it’s only because of your arm? What about when Good Morning America wants to interview you? How do you look at old pictures of yourself with two arms?
Jane’s voice holds real weight. She isn’t one of those inspirational Lifetime movie cases of an amputee who gets right back out there and rules the world. Instead, she battles real self-doubt, anger, and shame. She lashes out at people trying to help her, and grows to resent the outpouring of sympathy cards, flowers, and stuffed animals from people who have heard of her accident. This is not to say she’s unlikable, but rather believable. Most of her struggle is not learning to adjust to life as an amputee, but to stop punishing herself. That niggling voice in her head is perhaps her worst adversary – more so than the gossip at school, the insensitive jokes, the clumsy prosthetic hook, the stares in Starbucks – and all of us have battled that, missing arm or no.
Being a teenager sucks pretty much universally, but Jane is minus an arm too: how’s that for perspective? While she doesn’t climb Kilimanjaro or cure cancer, that doesn’t mean she’s not a hero. But you don’t have to do that to be a hero. For Jane, sometimes just making it through the minute, hour, day is all she can manage. Her eventual affirmation of life is the real message to take away. And while she perhaps won’t ever look on the shark attack as a good thing, she does make the best of it, and it leads her in a direction she would never have considered bfore.
A quick and relatively easy read, Shark Girl is a great book that really pulls you along. WARNING: do not read at the beach!