Tiny is homeless. Nola has everything she could ask for. They meet when Nola is forced into volunteer work for the writers’ group at the homeless shelter where Tiny is staying, and at first it seems impossible that two people who are so different could ever be friends. But despite her initial prejudice, Nola quickly learns that there isn’t much separating her from the people who live on the streets. And Tiny begins to see that falling down doesn’t mean you never get back up. Because of You is a story about homelessness, prejudice and the power of words to provide a little hope.
Most of us like to think we’re kind, caring people who want to help others out. But I’m sure most of us have also looked away from the person sleeping rough in the doorway of a business or selling The Big Issue from a milk crate on the corner of a busy city. I might be wrong, but I know I certainly have. It’s uncomfortable, unsettling. But the people we’re so busy avoiding are just that: people. People who had lives before finding shelter became their day-to-day, who have emotions and dreams. Because of You is a beautiful reminder that everyone has a story to tell and taking the time to listen, to ask how someone is coping, can make the world of difference.
There’s that saying: there but for the grace of God go I. And I think that’s one the things which struck me about Because of You. It did such a good job of bringing the stories of everyone to light, to highlight the fact that anyone can end up in such a situation if the elements align and fall the wrong way. Nola is apprehensive about her community service, unsure of how she should act around the writing group participants. Her uneasiness was easy to relate to and the exploration of how this shifts over time, as her understanding deepens, was touching. Because of You cleverly intertwines the seemingly important worries of high school life (formal dates and dresses, friendship dilemmas) with the very real, very frightening stresses Tiny faces living on the streets.
I felt an immediate connection with both Nola and Tiny, the same way I have with characters in Harry’s previous novels I’ll Show You Mine and Head of the River. It never fails to surprise me how delicately and beautifully young adult novels can explore topics which are usually off-limits. Because of You looks at drug abuse, homelessness and post-natal depression in a way which recognises its readers intelligence and pushes them to think harder about their own behaviour, to question how society can fail so many. It’s just a little scene, but I appreciated the way Tiny explains dealing with her period while living rough. Periods are so rarely mentioned in fiction in general, let alone when the character doesn’t have access to sanitary products.
So far, I feel like I’ve made Because of You sound pretty serious. But as heartbreaking as some of the situations explored are, this novel has an overwhelming message of hope. Tiny starts to see how she can turn a corner in her life, but it never feels like a fairytale. It still feels rough and hard, but there’s an acknowledgement that people can turn their lives around. The writing group is a key part of the storyline and I loved the way the exercises encouraged everyone, boosted them up and made them start to believe in themselves again. The sweet snatches of romance were something I looked forward to with every new page.
Because of You is such a tender novel, despite how tough its subject matter seems on paper. Harry has outdone herself with this beautiful story of friendship, hope and resilience. It may even make you think twice before looking away next time you see someone sleeping rough, may make you spend a little extra time finding out someone’s story.
Sounds like: Naive || Lily Allen
Thank you to the lovely folks at University of Queensland Press for providing a copy of the book for review.
Want to hear more about Because of You and Pip Harry’s writing? Check out the Better Words Podcast episode on iTunes featuring Pip.