Pretending by Holly Bourne book review

Book Review | Pretending by Holly Bourne

TW: Sexual violence, PTSD

April is thirty-something and jaded. Her work for a relationship advisory charity leaves her exhausted reading and responding to trauma on a daily basis; all her friends who are seemingly happily-married aren’t really that satisfied; and she’s broke from the aforementioned charity work.

She’s also had a string of relationships, ranging from the predictably disappointing (being ghosted after date three) to the horrifyingly abusive. She’s convinced that she must be the problem, that all men want a cookie-cutter girlfriend with no real opinions of her own, who oozes confidence and an appropriate amount of sex appeal. In April’s head, this phantom woman takes the form of someone called Gretel (somewhat an odd choice of name, in my opinion, but unusual enough to see why Holly Bourne would have picked it).

It’s simple then, April decides – she’ll just become Gretel. She’ll become the woman every man dreams of dating, and then break their hearts – just has been done to her countless times. She’ll self-construct a performative identity and watch the heartbreak play out from a distance. It’s a little heavy-handed in the passages where April writes her satirical Gretel handbook, and I found myself glossing over those passages where less could have said more.

April’s ‘Gretel project’ is also set against a backdrop of a sweltering English summer, that rarefied thing that only happens once or twice a decade and causes everyone to go into complete meltdown.

‘I don’t cry actually, just stare at the sky quite a lot, trying to remember what overcast feels like, what needing a cardigan feels like, what sanity feels life.’

April is also dealing with her own trauma from her rape, and this is where the novel shines as an empathetic, nuanced and careful exploration of sexual trauma and its ramifications.

‘You tuck your sexual trauma away to make yourself sexier to the species who took your sexuality away from you.’

The strongest parts of the novel for me were the open and honest way in which this is portrayed, the like of which I don’t think I’ve seen in contemporary fiction. It gives a voice to survivors and shows their strength in finding a way through. At the recommendation of her counsellor, April starts attending a boxing class for survivors and cultivates real friendships with other women who can identify with and help to heal her pain.

But there’s also some levity amidst the heavy subject matter; the solid friendship April has with her flatmate and their obsession with Dawson’s Creek, commentary on thirtysomething life, the trials and tribulations of living in London. Overall, it’s an accessible and compelling read that doesn’t shy away from addressing painful subject matter.

‘Young people surround and clap me. I get a smidgen on sadness when I realize I’ve become that crazy older person in the club you call a “legend” but secretly hope you never end up like.’

3.5*

With thanks to the publisher, Mira, for the advanced copy. Pretending will be published in the US on 17th November 2020.

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