Ashley Little’s Anatomy of a Girl Gang is not for the faint of heart. As one of my fellow readers Julia on Goodreads wrote in their review: “JESUS CHRIST. That is all.” That pretty much sums up my feelings too. [n.b.: trigger warning: discussion of sexual and physical violence, hate crimes].
Anatomy of a Girl Gang follows five girls living in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver: “Mac, the self-appointed leader and mastermind; Mercy, the Punjabi princess with a skill for theft; Kayos, a high-school dropout who gave birth to a daughter at age thirteen; Sly Girl, who fled her First Nations reserve for a better life, only to find depravity and addiction; and Z, a sixteen-year-old anti-establishment graffiti artist.” Tired of not being in control of their lives, they decide to start their own girls-only gang: the Black Roses. Each girl is broken in her own way, the survivor of colonization, racism, violence, rape, misogyny, addiction, childhood sexual abuse, mental illness, homophobia and poverty. Reading about the shit all of them have been through is heart-breaking and disturbing. There are images from this book I don’t think I’ll ever forget, like this excerpt from Sly Girl:
Kayos shooting that U.P. guy somehow brought it all back, everythin I thought I forgot—everythin I been trying so hard and long to block out—flashed in front of my eyes like I was seein it all again on a movie screen.
I seen a lotta crazy shit on the rez. I seen my cousin Bo get shot in the belly and bleed to death in my kitchen. I seen my brother Lenny get shot in the shoulder, the red flesh all ripped up like the inside of a fish. I seen Lenny stab a guy by the basketball courts, stab him in the neck with a broken beer bottle. I seen my brother, Eugene, get shot in the back, get paralyzed for life over a fifty-dollar debt. I seen one of my mom’s boyfriends smack her across the face with his gun because she smoked his last cigarette. I seen my brother Neil push his girlfriend down the stairs so she wouldn’t have her baby. I seen the cops bash my brother’s hands with clubs until all his fingers were broken and hanging from his hands like bloody sausages. I seen my mom threaten to kill my uncle with an axe. I seen my cousin shoot a dog in the head with a .22. I remember my uncle Leo stickin his gun up my asshole, makin me tell him I liked it. Then stickin it in my mouth. Askin me if I wanted him to pull the trigger. Yes, I’d nod, gaggin on the gun. Yes. Do it. Just do it. Please. And I meant it.
Then he would.
Although the girls have some success at first in the gang and dream of buying a condo, climbing the class ladder, and starting a ‘normal’ life, you know things are not going to end well. The romance between two of the girls is probably the lightest part of the book, but it doesn’t take up much narrative space. Reading Anatomy is like going on a crazy car ride knowing you’re about to crash any moment. The story is fast-paced and gets darker and darker, and as a reader your desperation builds with the girls’ as they scramble to choose one of their miserably restricted options.
Although there is a shred of hope at the very end of the story, overall Anatomy left me feeling utterly hopeless, cynical, and suspicious of the world. It’s to Little’s credit that this book absolutely lives up to what the blurb calls “a narrative punch to the throat.” I’m just not sure what I’m left with as a privileged reader after finishing this novel. The pain of each girl is almost unfathomable and yet I’m left wondering what on earth I am supposed to do. Their struggles are very real, and for me, living in Strathcona (a neighbourhood adjacent to the Downtown Eastside), very close to home literally, although figuratively quite distant.
This is a beautifully done book, which retains your sympathy for each girl even when their violence turns against each other (Little uses alternating perspectives very well throughout the novel). But I’m left with a kind of impetus to action that is nevertheless stalled by my feelings of despair. It makes me unsure, really, of how to review or assess the novel at all.