Stories of forbidden love are a staple of YA fiction. Whether our heroine is falling for a vampire, another girl, or a regular guy from the wrong side of the tracks, there's something irresistible about that notion of two young people in love against the rest of the world. We devour these books, confident that true love can conquer all and that the rest of the world is plain wrong. In a strange way, forbidden love stories are often among the most safe and comforting books on the YA shelf.
Tabitha Suzuma's Forbidden is not one of those books. In fact, it's likely to be one of the most painful and difficult YA books you've ever read. Because while this is a story about two young people falling in love, it isn't a cosy romance. Dual narrators Lochan and Maya are a brother and sister who realise they love each other as more than just siblings - or, more accurately, not as siblings. It's a challenging subject, and one that could easily put readers off even picking up the book in the first place. However, Forbidden is also an extremely well-written and thoughtful novel.
Neglected by their alcoholic mother and having no choice but to look after their three younger siblings, seventeen-year-old Lochan and sixteen-year-old Maya haven't had what you'd call a normal childhood. In many ways they're the parents of the household: they refer to their brothers and sister as 'the children', they're there to tuck them in at night and make sure there's food on the table, and for the last few years they've been spending their Christmas money on making sure it's a happy time for the little ones. They're partners; two people clinging to each other in their isolation from the world. Nonetheless, when they begin to realise their feelings for each other are not those that siblings should feel for each other, they're both thrown into a world of confusion, longing and hurt.
I'm a big fan of dual narrative, and in this case I think it's a huge part of what makes this book work. Suzuma appreciates that we need to be able to see for ourselves that Lochan and Maya both fall in love with each other, that they both try to ignore their feelings and that neither of them is manipulating the other. I can't deny that there are many passages which make for uncomfortable reading, but the main characters are sympathetic enough to carry the reader through. That said, there were occasional portions of dialogue between the two - regarding the consequences of their relationship and the kind of assumptions other people would make - that felt a little didactic. However, this doesn't lessen the achievement of Forbidden in any way. Tabitha Suzuma takes a subject that really is taboo for most people and creates a heartbreaking story of immense emotional impact.
Forbidden is a brave, poignant and powerful book. I don't think it's for everyone. There are some graphic scenes and for that reason I probably wouldn't recommend it for the younger end of the YA demographic. But for older readers looking for a novel that really challenges our expectations of Young Adult storytelling, this is the one.
Out: 27th May 2010, UK
Many thanks to Random House / Definitions for providing a review copy of this book.