‘Pretending’ by Holly Bourne

/5 stars

Published by Hodder & Stoughton!

April just wants her happy ending. She wants to meet a man, somehow miraculously get past date number five and forget everything that came before. When yet another date turns sour, though, and her previous trauma looks to well and truly get its claws into her, April hatches a plan to become the woman every man dreams of — easy-going, effortlessly beautiful, certainly not clingy, and, of course, no emotional baggage in sight. April becomes Gretel and Gretel meets Joshua. However, when Joshua begins to challenge everything April thought she knew, and feelings start to fester, it might just be about time to face up to all the things April has been trying to keep under control

‘Pretending’ feels like a 2020, post-#MeToo version of early noughties chick flicks like ‘How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days’, except, instead of doing everything in her power to repulse the leading man into breaking up with her, April embodies the Regular Everyday Manic Pixie Dream Girl Next Door with No Problems in order to hook, line and sinker her next date. It has all the charms of the aforementioned ‘How to Lose a Guy’ and ’27 Dresses’ (which is mentioned!), but with the sometimes uncomfortable, always necessary, underlining narrative of what it is to  be a victim of sexual assault.

Of course, there are no tired old tropes of woman meets man, woman falls in love, all woman’s insecurities and experienced trauma miraculously float away. No, April’s recovery is a long, painful, and, admittedly, quite difficult to read at times. It’s also a story that needs to be told over and over again.

Taking on such a sensitive topic is done with such class by Holly Bourne, though I’d expect nothing less given all the incredible works by her that came before, dealing effortlessly with difficult topics, whether in her YA or Adult Fiction novels. Feminism and female empowerment (though perhaps they are one in the same) shine through all her works and are the very reason I reach for them time and time again.

April’s trauma is dealt with in a way that feels honest and true, whilst also being quick to point out everyone’s recovery is different. This resonates particularly in the bonds April has with other women, including her mum, her flatmate Megan, and the women she meets at a sexual assault survivors boxing group. The female friendship embodied in this book shines through, as does April as a character. Rarely does she feel strong and in control, but there are moments where I see nothing but resilience in her, and I think, at the very least, that is very reassuring.

‘Pretending’ ends with its authenticity intact, offering hope and ultimately giving a voice to victims of sexual assault. Even more so, it gives a voice to women, the reality for whom quietly experiencing forms of sexual assault and harassment in everyday life feels commonplace.

‘Pretending’ stands up for an entire body of people, and it doesn’t do it quietly either – nor should it. It also says, in time, you’ll be able to leave your heart open again.

“It’s the violation that’s the violence, don’t you see? It’s knowing your boundaries mean bugger-all that’s the trauma – that anyone can touch you, that how you feel about it doesn’t count. That’s the trauma. That’s the violence. Anything else that happens on top of that is additional.”

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