To tread a fine line

In a corner of my soul there hides a tiny frightened child, who is frightened by a corner where there lingers something wild.”

In The Truth and Lies of Ella Black, Emily Barr has created a vulnerable 17-year-old with a wobbly self, who is trying hard to find a balance between her inner demons and an outer world that is apparently calm but seething with unease just under its surface.

The book opens with Ella and her best friend Jack spending a relaxed day in London, but at the end of it, Ella is under tremendous pressure to get back home for her badass self Bella is threatening to break loose. It is all she can do to get rid of Jack and the unwanted attention of her mother, close herself up in her room that Bella comes spilling out and takes a hammer to a baby bird that Humphrey her cat has brought in. The unwarranted violence of the act terrifies Ella. She knows and recognises the evil in her self and attempts to disassociate herself from it by naming it, Bella-Bad Ella. Things do not get better when her mother unexpectedly turns up at school the next day and the family suddenly takes off for Rio. They are reluctant to talk about why they are on a holiday in the middle of a school term.

Questions come crowding in Ella’s mind. Are they running away from something? Is she, Ella, terminally ill? There is something ‘‘weird”. Sensing her parents’ extreme unwillingness to talk about it, Ella decides to get to the bottom of it herself. Vulnerable she may be, but Ella is resourceful. Snooping among her parents’ papers, she realises she has been adopted, and that her birth mother is looking for her. The world, as she knows it, comes crumbling around Ella. But life is never a single-track story. Just as her story with her parents is coming to an end, a new chapter is beginning, of falling in love with a boy she meets in the hotel.

That is the start of a tumultuous journey of ups and downs, more downs than ups if truth be told, of Ella Black’s momentous rite of passage. What happens when a susceptible 17-year-old finds herself in a foreign country with no passport, no money, no clothes, no food, no shelter over her head, unable or unwilling to go back to her parents, torn between love and hate for them? Therein lies the strength and the story of Ella Black. All she has left is badass Bella and her resolve to give Bella some headway to “get on with things”. As more skeletons tumble out of the family cupboard, the possibility of Ella’s return to her parents becomes remote.

Homeless, moneyless, friendless in a ‘‘favela”, from being a person who has “never not had money”, she learns to push aside her doubts and diffidence and fight for survival in the most dangerous of localities of Rio. Gone is the overprotected Ella. Her priorities are clear – a roof over her head and a job, and she does everything to get that.

The book brings a clear signal of hope. What when the most unpalatable truth of your life is laid open like a book before you? When all that you have known and loved, peels away like old skin? Ella starts to learn some immensely important things in life. “Not being focused on myself makes the whole world feel lighter.” She learns to be grateful for the preciousness of the moment.

And she understands the importance of paying forward a good deed. The individual life gets a new meaning, a new focus. “I was saved by people... and I find myself wanting to save other children from the trouble their circumstances bring them.”

Forced out of her comfortable life, she starts to realise “how monstrously unjust the world is.” And Ella starts on her journey of self-discovery in a most accidental way. The climax is melodramatic but things have been cooking for so long that they need to boil over. Emily Barr has written a coming-of-age story of a teenager on the brink of adulthood, not ready to grow wings and leave the parental nest yet. It deals with the typical angst of a teenager, of insecurities, a sense of not belonging.

Simultaneously, it is a book of great strength and courage. Ella runs from her fate as much as she can, and when she is cornered and cannot run any longer, turns around and takes fate by its horns, wrestles with it and “a terrible beauty is born”. What is left at the end of the book is an overwhelming sense of resilience. A good read, and not just for teenagers.

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To tread a fine line

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