Nova Ren Suma
It’s tempting to call Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls ‘dream-like’, given how its plot treads the haphazard line between reality and fantasy in virtually every scene. In a lot of cases, though, that description falls short, implying a kind of creative free-for-all in which any event or concept can be explained away by reference to the surreal nature of the work in question. Imaginary Girls is more concrete than that, fitting neatly into the realm of magic-realism: yes, strange things happen, and yes, they’re often not fully explained, but the novel holds together according to its own brilliantly-conceived internal logic.
That logic dictates much of the events of the plot, although it takes a while to reveal itself. At first, it seems to be a story about two sisters: Chloe, the narrator, and her sister Ruby, whose influence over their town becomes more sinister and less easily explained the more we learn about it. Ruby, according to Chloe, is capable of just about anything – she can wrap anyone around her finger (including Chloe herself), take anything she wants from anyone she wants, and dictate utterly the terms of every relationship she enters into, all while neatly side-stepping the consequences of her actions. She remains the centre of the story throughout, as she (possibly) brings a dead girl back to life and gets the whole town involved with forces that may just be outside of her control.
Surprisingly, it isn’t its (potentially) supernatural elements that makes Imaginary Girls so fascinating. It’s the characters that are likely to keep you reading, and Ruby carries the entire weight of the novel on her shoulders. She is the infamous Manic Pixie Dream Girl as seen not through the eyes of a male character desperately needing affirmation, but rather through the eyes of her eerily-obsessed sister.
An incredible amount of Chloe’s narration deals exclusively with Ruby, to the extent that it comes as something of a shock when she isn’t talking about her incessantly. Chloe’s likes and dislikes, her preferences for clothes and food and boyfriends, are all filtered through Ruby’s own tastes and rules. I’m always slightly wary when a novel’s formal construction attempts to mimic its themes, because it so often ends up being a recipe for a self-aggrandising trainwreck, but here it works beautifully; try counting the number of sentences that begin with the word ‘Ruby’ in any given chapter, then stop and ask yourself who this book is really about.
The secondary cast and setting are also described with painstaking detail. Nova Ren Suma’s eye for detail brings even minor characters to life in all their messy, realistic glory, something that remains fairly rare in a lot of YA. They aren’t always likable (in fact, there’s a noticeable lack of unambiguously ‘good’ characters to latch on to), but they’re always real. Unfortunately, this is likely to turn off anyone just looking for some escapist fantasy.
But if you’re the kind of reader who likes their fiction complicated, difficult and emotionally fraught, you owe it to yourself to give Imaginary Girls a try. I somehow doubt the YA world will be seeing anything quite like it until Suma’s next effort, which really can’t come soon enough for me.