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Review: Zelah Green by Vanessa Curtis

zelah green curtis Review: Zelah Green by Vanessa Curtis

A close relative of mine lives a life that, while rich and expansive in some areas, is small and constrained in others. Her fear of germs, infection, and illness sees her frequently clad in rubber clubs scrubbing away layers of invisible taint from pristine surfaces, sees her washing and re-washing fruit and vegetables until their glossy fibres strain and fray, sees her bringing her own cutlery to restaurants, refusing to drink out of handle-less cups, and refusing to eat in establishments where the kitchen isnt visible from the dining area. These tendencies, however, extend beyond food and hygiene into other areas: an absolute fear of the sun and its potential effect on the skin, for example, and other small but but important proclivities that result in habituated behaviour that, while not necessarily bad or detrimental, do affect the way she lives her life. While such tendencies are often passed off as quirks, habits, eccentricities, or preferences, theyre also often ascribed a more formal name: obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD. OCD has been examined widely in literature and film, with characters such as George Sorensen from One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest or the eponymous character from Monk immediately coming to mind, but depictions of teens with OCD seem to be relatively rare. In her YA novel'Zelah Green: Who Says Im a Freak? Vanessa Curtis, however, takes up this topic in a refreshingly light-hearted but sympathetic manner.


Hand washing. Door locking. Wardrobe spacing. Stair jumping. Zelah Green fits her schedule around a compulsive need to attend to these, and other, rituals. Failure to complete these rituals in the manner prescribed sees Zelah desperately repeating them in order to stave off some unknown, but much-feared outcome. For Zelah, who is in a sort of pained limbo after her mothers prolonged illness and sudden death, and her fathers crumbling self-concept, these rituals offer a degree of self-protection, and allow her to exert some sort of perceived control over a life that otherwise feels as though its spinning out of control. But while Zelah takes comfort in her rituals, those around her are struggling to cope with them, and Zelah is soon sent to a rehabilitation retreat for teens suffering from a range of personal issues. While there, she begins to uncover the source of her OCD, and finds herself reflecting not only her own life, but on her relationships with others, developing a more sophisticated understanding over those things that can be changed through individual agency, and those things that cannot, and learning to look beyond the superficial in the individuals she meets along the way.

My thoughts

Its an unfortunately reality that traditionally issues books aimed at teens have had a tendency to veer towards the didactic and condemnatory, making them excellent examples of finger-wagging, fear-mongering, and Dire Consequences but, often, little else. In recent years, however, this trend has begun to abate, being replaced instead by books that deal humanely, thoughtfully, and warmly with issues that effect teens. In addition, good examples within this genre allow teens to be more than the sum of their actions, and more than the issue that consumes them. Written with an undeniable warmth, liveliness, and sense of understanding,'Zelah Green is one such book. Zelah, though consumed by her rituals, exists beyond them rather than being simply defined by them, and her character is richly drawn, with a strong sense of personal history and back-story. Curtis allows us to get inside Zelahs head in a way that never patronises or condemns, and in a way that is consistent with Zelahs own sense of internal logicwhich is, of course, one that contrasts noticeably with that held by most readers. The matter-of-fact way in which Zelah describes and performs her rituals is at once fresh and entertaining and rather moving: to Zelah, her coping mechanisms are a simple fact of life, and must be adhered to unerringly until the end of time, while to the reader theyre patently self-destructive and must be overcome in order for Zelah to live a life that is rich and well-rounded. Zelahs treatment, though perhaps resulting in successes that seem a little too quick to be be completely believable, is well-handled, and Curtis neatly examines the issues behind Zelahs OCD in a way that is thoughtful yet succinct.

However, while Zelahs character is beautifully set up, the book struggles with structural issues that result in other key characters being drawn only sketchily, and a plot that resolves rather too quickly and neatly. Zelah Green is loosely based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and as such suffers somewhat from some of the requisite tropes of fairytale fiction. Zelahs stepmother, for example, is depicted as wicked and selfish to a degree that its rather difficult to suspend disbelief, and given her significant role in Zelahs life and several of the key plot points, such as the when and why behind Zelahs being sent away for treatment, the flatness of her character weakens the book as a whole. Moreover, while Curtis introduces us to a host of potentially fascinating characters at Zelahs treatment facility, many of these remain little more than suggestions. This is perhaps the fault of the tight first-person point of view, which precludes us from getting inside these characters heads: Zelahs position as an outsider means that she has little more than a cursory understanding of any of these characters, and as such they are not much more than quick, bright flares that spark here and there along the narrative. Theres great potential here, but unfortunately its not picked up to the degree it could be.

The conclusion, too, involving Zelahs knight in shining armour, in this case the not-so-shining character of Zelahs father, feels a little rushed, and indeed almost even forced. Zelahs fathers explanation for his unannounced and rather prolonged absence (a sudden stint in a treatment centre for alcoholism) feels a little weak, and raises a number of questions in terms of believability and motivation: its difficult to believe that he would leave his daughter without first talking to her, and that Zelahs stepmother, even being the Cruella De Ville-esque woman that she is, would stoop to cutting so thoroughly communication between the two. This sort of thing may well be appropriate for cautionary tales written in medieval times, but in a modern novel it falls rather flat. I do appreciate, however, the fact that Curtis emphasises the ongoing nature of Zelahs treatment, highlighting that her efforts to recover will take time and will be incremental in their success. The final chapter in the book, despite the dramatic overthrowing-of-the-evil-stepmum stuff, is hopeful and positive without being twee, and while the inevitable sequel lurks in the wings, everything is wrapped up cleanly enough to avoid the terrible cliffhanger syndrome so common in YA series of late. And, lets face it, another book involving the fun and witty Zelah is certainly not an awful thought.


Zelah Greens strengths largely come from Zelah herself: shes a protagonist whom its impossible to dislike, and who invites support and empathy from the reader every step along the way. Her struggles with OCD are documented in a light-hearted way that never feels teasing or dismissive, and her sense of determination and resilience is admirable. This book, while suffering more generally from narrative and characterisation issues, is worth reading for Zelah alone, and Id happily pick up the next in the series.

Rating: star Review: Zelah Green by Vanessa Curtisstar Review: Zelah Green by Vanessa Curtisstar Review: Zelah Green by Vanessa Curtisblankstar Review: Zelah Green by Vanessa Curtisblankstar Review: Zelah Green by Vanessa Curtis

With thanks to Hardie Grant Egmont for the review copy

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Other books by Vanessa Curtis:

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  1. I have a friend whose teen daughter has mild OCD, I might pick this up for her, Thanks for the review Steph

  2. Stephanie /

    My pleasure, Shelley Rae. I thought the OCD part of this was handled really well, and would definitely recommend it.