People call fifteen-year-old Shiraz Baily Wood is a chav. (Think “trailer trash”, but British and urban.) She denies the label, but will admit to wearing hoodies, listening to hip-hop and adoring huge, chunky gold hoop earrings. Her family is in shambles when her older sister, Cava-Sue, convinced that there is more to life than watching television and eating Pringles, defies her parents by choosing to continue her education. Shiraz doesn’t understand her sister’s desire to “get out” but she doesn’t want her sister to leave. Meanwhile, her best friend is obsessed with a boy, leaving Shiraz in the dust. And a new teacher is inexplicably interested in trying to get Shiraz to apply herself.
Shiraz was a loveable character. Her voice is very strong, and also very British. I read a lot of British books and spent some time there as an exchange student, so I didn’t have a problem understanding any of the text, but for those who are not familiar with British slang or the British schooling system of tests, it would have been helpful for the handy glossary to have been located at the front of the book. As it was, I didn’t stumble across it until I’d already finished the book, at which point anyone who was confused would no long need it.
The relationships Shriraz has with her family and friends felt very real. Her family interactions in particular had a ring of truth to them. I loved the scene where the family attends Cava-Sue’s production of Waiting for Godot and not only completely embarrass all of the avant-garde theater goers by their mere presence, but also are utterly unable to appreciate the play and leave during intermission, to everyone’s relief. It just seemed like something that would really happen: a family trying desperately to support a misfit daughter, but failing completely across a wide cultural gap. It was both wickedly funny and very sad at the same time.
The scene towards the end where the family ends up on the British equivalent of Jerry Springer seemed a bit far-fetched for me, but I was willing to play along, and it helped Shiraz to both gain self-confidence and to realize the shallowness of these types of programs.
The entire book has a note of hilarity to it, and Shiraz’s comments and conversation are hilarious. But there is a serious aspect to the book as well. Shiraz has to contend with the fact that as she becomes more aware that she might want more out of her life than a minimum wage job (illustrated hysterically with an ill-fated work-placement at a less than hygienic pakora factory), her family is not going to support her in this decision. There is the very real worry that her friends will also not understand why she would want to complete homework assignments or pay attention in class. Behind the humor, Shiraz’s cultural catch-22 is almost frighteningly sad.