Rock Angel is a novel by Jody French.
Finished on: 9.1.2020
[I won this book in a librarything Early Reviewer give-away.]
Content Note: domestic violence, racism
Emily has two gifts that help her get through the memories of her traumatic childhood: she can see people’s auras and she can sing. When her crush Matt (a cool blue) actually asks her to be in his band, Emily can’t believe it. Supported by her best friend Rachel (an energetic, volatile red), Emily gives it a try and is suprised how well she fits in with the other band members Patrick (a caring purple), Zeb (a creative green) and Matt (an unreliable orange). Together, they create something good and their success pushes Emily in directions she didn’t expect. She has to figure out if they are directions she actually likes.
Rock Angel is not the best written novel, but it’s a fine, quick read. Despite some nice characters, there were a couple of things I did struggle with, though – especially the racism.
There were two major things that wouldn’t jive with me in the novel. Unfortunately the first was pretty central to the story: Emily’s abilities to see auras. I don’t have a problem with fantasy elements, I usually like them. But on the one hand, I didn’t really see why this element was introduced to the story apart from a shorthand to characterize and judge everyone who makes an appearence. And on the other hand, auras as characterizations can be incredibly reductive, making it seem like there are good and bad people in the world and if we could only see auras, we would magically see who is good and who is bad – and this would never change at all. Unfortunately, the way auras are used here is exactly like that.
The other thing was Emily’s background, her family story: her father was an abusive alcoholic who regularly beat her mother (the image of perfection) and ended up killing her in a drunk driving accident. All of that, okay, it’s a lot, but of course I have nothing per se against including domestic violence, but things turned decidedly iffy for me when Emily drops the factoid that she has native roots – her father was Cherokee. And here things just go very wrong in the sense that they are very racist:
- the stereotype of the violent alcoholic native man who kills the practically perfect white woman,
- the fact that there is no cultural connection whatsoever here with Emily – she doesn’t belong to a tribe, she is not part of the Cherokee culture, life, community. It’s basically the literary equivalent of a white person “yeah, I’m one eighth Indian!”, having never spent a single minute close to a native person,
- this quote: “My sister never went through an awkward stage. Shay’s always looked like Pocahontas. She has Father’s coloring. Her tan Cherokee skin is flawless and her dark hair flowing and thick. She inherited Father’s eyes — brown with golden flecks highlighting the iris, but unlike Father’s empty stares, her eyes are lit with kindness.”,
- and finally it could be easily argued that Emily’s ability to see auras is some kind of innate “native magic” which would be another racist trope. It’s never framed that way in the novel, but the dots are all there and racism makes it easy to connect them in a certain way.
Fortunately, it’s more of a throw-away comment anyway (and at least they actually name a particular group of natives), so it can be ignored for the most part. But especially because of that, it would have been so easy to just kick it entirely and it would have made the novel stronger.
French included some of the lyrics Emily writes and your mileage will probably vary about them – they didn’t really speak to me. But I thought it was a cute idea and a nice way to bring the music of this rock novel to the reader.
But really, the novel’s saving grace is that the characters are actually pretty nice and that it’s such a quick read that you don’t have much time to spend with the issues anyway. And it’s probably not enough time to really anchor itself in my memory.
Summarizing: better not.