Trigger warning for depictions of eating disorders and domestic violence.
Even if you’ve experienced mental illness yourself, it can be hard to understand and empathize with someone else’s. We see people who are depressed and wonder why they can’t just snap out of it. We see people who are in abusive relationships and are flabbergasted that they can’t walk away. And when someone self-harms or refuses to eat for so long that they run the risk of dying, our response is to shout at them and shove food at them. We expect people to fix themselves. Diana Clarke’s devastating novel, Thin Girls, takes us deep into the world of disordered eating with Rose Winters. Thin Girls is thankfully a book about healing, ultimately, but Rose’s journey back to corporeality and health is brutally real.
Rose and Lily were identical in all ways but one until they turned 14. Their only difference was Lily’s mole. But, like many twins, the girls are treated like two halves of one whole by many people—so much so that Rose’s identity was deeply enmeshed in Lily’s until Lily started to make other friends. It’s tempting to try and identify the precise moment when Rose became an anorexic and Lily started to value men more than she valued herself, but I feel like that would be the wrong approach to Thin Girls (and to understanding eating disorders, as well). The seeds were there, sure, but this book is about the work it takes to undo the damage anorexia does to the body, the mind, and the soul.
Thin Girls is narrated by Rose, with occasional asides in the form of Lily’s writing, letters from an old friend, and facts that are recalled from the nonfiction books that have been abandoned at the facility were Rose spends much of the first part of the novel. Rose moves back and forth in time to show us how she and Lily grew apart, how her anorexia developed, how her sexuality was repeatedly repressed, and how she finds the right person to help her through her recovery. Rose frequently reflects on what it’s like to be hungry, to be so malnourished that one’s own body starts to fail. At times, Rose recalls trying to be two-dimensional or to disappear entirely. This is why I described Rose’s recovery as a path back to corporeality. Rose has to learn how to rejoin her body and the real world in order to leave behind the death spiral of her eating disorder.
In addition to its psychological realism about eating disorders, I really appreciated Clarke’s portrayal of Rose’s relationship with Jemima. So many romantic relationships in fiction either concentrate on fireworks (a la romance novels) or their trials and tribulations (as in so many works of literary fiction). There is, of course, a place for fireworks and for tumult, but what I really love about how Rose and Jemima’s relationship is its tenderness. After all of the damage they’ve done, these women can be caring of and gentle with each other. The brief moments when Jemima makes Rose wait to get into a hot bath or take a sip of fresh coffee so that she doesn’t accidentally burn herself had me tearing up; these moments are pure love—and a much needed dose of emotional relief after the harrowing of the first two-thirds of Thin Girls.
Thin Girls is a shattering read, but one I would recommend (with all the necessary trigger warnings, of course). It is brilliantly written and so true to the characters that I had no problem imagining Rose, Lily, their calorie/perfection obsessed mother, their alcoholic father, Rose’s frenemy-turned-lover Jemima, and the rest of the cast existing somewhere out there in the real world. I think this book has the potential to help us understand what it’s like to have an eating disorder—to really take us inside the mind of someone with anorexia—that it can teach us to not to expect that a slice of cake can cure someone or that we can just show someone their illogic and that they will snap out of their disordered eating. Thin Girls is one of the best books about mental illness that I’ve ever read.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.