Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Just as I Am – Virginia Smith

This could have been a great book. It’s about a “colourful” young woman (purple hair, facial piercings) who suddenly becomes a Christian. Mayla Strong is certainly a great character. When she becomes a Christian, she sets about trying to work out what it means in practice. This causes some interesting friction with the culture of the fairly conservative-sounding church in which she finds herself.

Up to there, this could have been a great book. But I felt there were several things that let it down. First, Mayla seemed to learn an awful lot about how Christians are and aren’t supposed to behave very quickly. She didn’t seem to have many issues with the parts of her previous life that she’d have left behind – relationships etc. The characters she came into conflict with in church seemed fairly easy (although perfectly valid) targets – the would-be matchmakers in particular (A single young person in possession of a faith is not universally also in want of a spouse, nor should they necessarily be - q.v. this excellent post).

It also felt a bit preachy in a lot of places. Perhaps it made some assumptions of its own (is it actually wrong for Christians merely to be at a party where people are using illegal drugs?) Perhaps I come from a Church background such that a lot of the things that others might find shocking in this book simply aren’t for me.

I also felt too many of the characters in the book were too perfect. Mayla herself, for example, her mum, and the pastor, all seem to do the right thing and say the right thing pretty much all the time (at least where it matters). Real Christians aren’t like that, or at least, the ones who are don’t make good novel characters because they’re not believable.

The final point of sadness I felt about the story was at the end where Mayla decides to remove her facial piercing (which she had earlier changed from a stud to a cross – a very good touch) and recolor her hair in a natural shade. Almost as if it’s saying that while yes you can be a Christian whatever you look like, to really be a good Christian and fit in you do need to look boring like everyone else.

All of which is not to say I didn’t like it. It is in turns funny, serious, and poignant, particularly Mayla’s anger after her gay friend dies of AIDS. And maybe if you’re at a church like the one in this book then this would be a good thing to read. But I’d have liked it even better if it had been a bit more edgy.


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