In Pretending by Holly Bourne we meet April, a woman in her early thirties who spends a lot of her life thinking she should be someone else – a better version of herself, the version of herself men want her to be. This identity issue is what the novel explores, along with the sensitive topic of sexual abuse. Despite its heavy themes, Pretending is often funny and written in such a conversational tone that you feel close to it immediately.
Opening sentence: “I hate men.”
Meet April / Gretel
Yes, quite the opening line. But this isn’t a man-bashing novel. When we meet April, this is a snapshot of where she is in her life, for a few reasons. She was raped by her ex-boyfriend and is working through this, while trying to look for a new relationship. This however, is not proving easy:
I want a relationship because it’s a really normal and natural thing to want. And yet, it’s not been happening for me. It’s so exhaustingly hard.
So, April hatches a crazy plan that’s sprung from her belief that men are only after a certain type of insecurity-free, confident, undamaged woman. A woman she has conjured up in her head and named Gretel. She decides to let ‘Gretel’ go on a date, meet a man and see how successful the subsequent dates are / relationship is… I think we all know that so overtly pretending to be someone else will never end brilliantly, so this is the great hook of the story – you keep reading to see how it all works out for April, while going on a pretty emotional journey with her too.
So much rejection, gaslighting, entitlement, pushiness, scorn, manipulation, power play, compulsive lying, on and on it has gone. And, every time, no matter what men do to me, I have taken some time out to recover and then hurried back into the ring, determined to try again.
Gretel gets her own chapters within the story, they are sarcastic and scathing and show the mixed emotions that April has. Pretending asks why so many women feel the need to create a Gretel – a perfect version of themselves – perhaps even subconsciously. Are we amending ourselves to fit in with what others think we should be?
A message of hope
In April, we see a achingly real, multi-layered woman who is trying desperately to navigate her trauma. While I can’t relate directly to what April goes through, reading Pretending did cause lots of memories to ping into my mind unbidden. From crappy ex-boyfriends to terrible dates. I had a realisation that I did maybe act certain ways and let men treat me like shit and that’s really not OK.
There is literally no woman out there who doesn’t have insecurities about something.
Holly Bourne is primarily a YA author and this is her second adult book (her first, How Do You Like Me Now? was also brilliant). Maybe it’s her YA background that gives her such an insightful way of writing and tapping into the issues that plague so many women – issues that we may not feel comfortable enough to talk about or even realise we have.
Pretending gives a message of hope to any woman who had been raped, sexually assaulted, in a bad relationship or had their self-esteem crushed by a man. A very thought provoking and important story.
- Published by Virago 18th June 2020;
- 352 pages;
- My rating: