Book Review: The Mara Dyer series by Michelle Hodkin

I recently found myself revisiting these books simply because I absolutely love them. They’re entertaining, packed with witty dialogue and haunting incidents, romance, despair, and all manner of emotional upheaval. And what does all this equate to? A damn good read.

Whilst I enjoy reading books for the characters and the story itself, I’m a big believer that every book, particularly those that can influence young minds, should engage with political and social context wherever they can. And Michelle does this really well. Her trilogy deals with sexual abuse, animal abuse, the stigma surrounding mental health, identity struggles, racial and sexual prejudice and discrimination, the concept of the self, and the reality of misdiagnosis in healthcare. Through Mara’s character, the reader begins to understand how mental health affects a person’s life, and because we receive Mara’s story through first person, we experience everything in a very immersive way. This is very subtly yet effectively places the reader in the position of someone suffering from psychological issues. It’s a way of making people listen and, to a certain extent, making them experience it. Just like Mara, we feel betrayed by her family when she is committed. Just like Mara, we experience moments of confusion over events that may or may not have happened. Was Noah really dying when Mara kissed him, or did she imagine it? We begin to second-guess ourselves and Mara, too, as a narrator – is she unreliable because of her ‘unstable’ state of mind? And then we feel guilty for thinking of her as the professionals do, as her family do – someone who does not know her own mind. It plays with the reader psychologically, which I imagine echoes the confusion experienced by anyone suffering from a mental health issue. But above all, it reveals the truth of how lonely and isolating the experience can be.

There’s a lot of emphasis on Mara wanting to be ‘normal’. She is afraid of what she’s going through, and just wants to be an ordinary teenage girl, which I found really interesting. It reminds us that people suffering from mental health don’t want to be going through it. They just want to be okay like the rest of us. Mara’s fear of institutionalisation is actually one of the reasons she doesn’t get the help she needs. In order to prevent her institutionalisation, she pretends to be better than she is. In society, it is easier if someone ‘different’ is labelled as ‘unstable’ and consequently removed, and even in this fictional setting, that sticks true. The people Mara should be able to open up to – the professionals and doctors she should be able to be honest with about her issues are actually the ones who make her feel more crazy, and even threatened. When she tries to seek help, she doesn’t find it, and that perfectly reflects today’s problems surrounding the way mental illness is treated (or, perhaps, not treated).

There’s also the concept of misdiagnosis too. Mara isn’t actually crazy. She suffers from PTSD, but her actual diagnosis and the fact that she’s on medication for psychosis is wrong. It just so happens that her actual diagnosis is rather more outlandish and strays into the realm of the supernatural and magical, which makes it difficult for her to reveal the truth. As a result, she has no way of declaring herself sane, and is powerless to refuse treatment. I think it is incredibly poignant that the final scene in Evolution is of Mara, induced with a drug that is like truth serum but prevents her from saying what she really wants to say. Her voice is literally being suppressed by medicine. The healthcare she should be getting is manipulating her. She has no voice except the one they give her. Mara’s rights are stripped away when she is finally committed by her family, and I found this pretty distressing to read about. She cannot leave, she has no control over what happens to her, and because people keep telling her so, Mara begins to believe she might actually be crazy. Self-doubt sets in because of what others tell her about herself. I suppose there’s something bigger in there for everyone to take away from this. If you know the truth, trust yourself – that’s all that matters. Not what other people think. Not what other people say.

The narrative also focuses heavily on the theme of identity, which is one I think resonates deeply with young readers. Mara doesn’t recognise herself when she looks in the mirror, and what makes her different is what makes her hate herself. The fear of being different is a universal struggle I think we can all relate to one way or another. Yes, Mara’s power is disturbing and lethal, but it is still what makes her different, and being different is good. This is essentially a coming of age story, which means it touches on a lot of relevant and timeless topics. One of Mara’s most significant journeys through the series is her attempt to grow comfortable in her own skin. I particularly appreciated all those awkward teenage moments in the novel, for instance when Mara trips into her first class and literally falls on her face, ending up with a nosebleed. I mean, that resonated with me on a very personal level because that’s the kind of thing that would happen to me. The idea of image is another important concept in the novel: looking in the mirror and not liking the reflection that is staring back at you. I find this particularly applicable to young girls, because, for them, appearance is inevitably linked to identity.

Michelle certainly explores the damage in young people, even through Noah’s character. Externally, he’s in control, carefree, beautiful. Internally, he’s broken, wounded, and lost. He has self-harmed and attempted suicide in his past, and carries with him the trauma of seeing his mother killed before his eyes as a child. As for Jamie, who is one of my absolute favourite characters in the series, he is the victim of racial and sexual discrimination – sadly, an issue which is particularly relevant at the moment.

But for all of these serious elements, there are rare and beautiful moments to counter them. Michelle employs the use of some truly striking imagery, some of which has made it onto the canvas of favourite quotes currently that hangs in my room.

We snuggled like quotation marks in his room full of words.

Thinking something can make it true. Wanting something can make it real.

I LOVE that naming is given particular significance in the books, and that by the end of the series, Mara has regained a sense of agency in this way. She literally becomes the narrator of her own story, and uses that power to help others – to keep them from feeling alone in their struggles. She has the last say, because, although she brands this as a love story, it’s so much more than that. It’s a survival story. She has beaten her demons and is living a relatively ordinary life – not because she’s ‘normal’, but because she’s learned to accept herself for who she really is. There’s something undoubtedly inspirational about that. As Mara distinguishes in Evolution: ‘Our [medical] files were a part of us – the parts that people wanted to fix. But they weren’t all of us. They weren’t who we were. Only we could decide that’. Mara and the others are so much more than these labels they’ve been given, and they refuse to be defined by their struggles. And as Jamie rightfully points out: “This is bullshit,” he said suddenly. “We’re teenagers. We’re supposed to be sarcastic.” […] “But we’re in here and they’re out there?” He shook his head slowly. “Everyone’s a little crazy. The only difference between us and them is that they hide it better.” If we can take anything away from this particular quote, I’d hope it would be that the binary of ‘us and them’ should no longer exist.

In the end, Mara realises that she does not need to be fixed or saved. She just needs to keep going and accept who she really is. She calls herself the villain of the story, but as we all know by now, the villain is simply the hero of her own story.

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