Worse Than Boys
by Catherine MacPhail
Published by Bloomsbury
320 pages, 2007
Buy it online
Sticks and Stones and Breaking Bones
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
Scottish writer Catherine MacPhail is prolific and versatile. Worse Than Boys is the third of her novels that I have read -- only three of many she has written -- and they have all been quite different. Roxy’s Baby was a thriller about a girl caught up in baby farming in modern times. Nemesis: Into the Shadows was also a thriller, this time about an Alex Rider-like boy with amnesia, on the run after a murder he didn’t commit.
In Worse Than Boys, we enter the world of school girls and their friendships and the things that turn them against each other. Nothing unusual about that in the realm of fiction. In this case, however, the thing that loses the heroine her friendship group is quite understandable, if she had actually been guilty. And then there are the girl gangs, meeting after school for physical fights. Hannah, the narrator, belongs to the Lip Gloss Girls, popular both with fellow students and the staff, and the other gang is the Hellcats, who live on the dark housing estate and who are blamed for every crime or piece of vandalism that takes place in the town.
When Hannah is accused of spreading a very embarrassing secret and her friends reject her, she finds herself joining the Hellcats, who turn out to be not as bad as they seem, while her former best friend Erin is nasty and manipulative. It doesn’t, after all, take Erin very long to turn all the other students, who had been making fun of her, against Hannah.
The title comes from a number of characters saying that girls are “Worse Than Boys.” Boys, it is suggested, will hit you when angry and then forget about it, while girls will get very nasty and stab each other in the back. At one point, when a boy says, “I’d hate to be a lassie,” Hannah retorts, “You’re too much of a wimp. We’d never have you.” When the male students gather to watch and jeer at the “cat fight,” both gangs unite to beat up the boys. This doesn’t last -- they hate each other too much -- but it’s a nice touch.
It has often been said that boys will bully each other physically, while girls will bully each other by exclusion and words. I work with teenagers, and it is true that friendships, especially those of girls, break up and re-form at the drop of a hat. It’s part of being a teenage girl, as is cringing with embarrassment about your mother. Hannah regards her own mother as a loser and the worst is that her mother considers herself as one. By the end of the book, things have changed for the better in this respect, thanks to Hannah’s new friendships.
Most of the story is believable in terms of the way the girls behave, though in my own school, disagreements are more likely to be between different ethnic groups than social groups. I did find it a little hard to swallow that the characters who were first presented as tough turned out to be terribly nice and not really tough at all. The real villains of the piece are another girl gang who don’t go to the school and whom we never get to know.
Still, girls will probably enjoy this because it does reflect the daily traumas and tragedies they are likely to experience -- probably not the physical fights, in general, not even in the kind of working-class school presented in the novel, but in the friendship issues and wanting to look good and worrying about what everyone thinks of you. Kids may have heard of the notion of sticks and stones breaking bones, but words can and do hurt them. | September 2007
Sue Bursztynski is the author of several children's books, including the CBC Notable Book Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science and Your Cat Could Be A Spy. Her fiction has been published in various SF magazines. She publishes two blogs, a general one at http://greatraven.blogspot.com and a review/SF blog at http://suebursztynski.blogspot.com. She lives in Australia.