Love can be a dangerous thing…I wasn’t sure what kind of read Bleeding Violet was going to turn out to be. I’d been searching for some PoC-centric horror, and when I came across a list with Dia Reeves’ name, I was surprised to find her work categorized as YA. I’ve heard almost nothing about either of her books, despite being subscribed to half a dozen diversity-in-YA accounts on Tumblr and Twitter, where charts of minority-written and -starring books come down the feed almost constantly. Why aren’t more people trying to get me to read this???
Hanna simply wants to be loved. With a head plagued by hallucinations, a medicine cabinet full of pills, and a closet stuffed with frilly, violet dresses, Hanna’s tired of being the outcast, the weird girl, the freak. So she runs away to Portero, Texas in search of a new home.
But Portero is a stranger town than Hanna expects. As she tries to make a place for herself, she discovers dark secrets that would terrify any normal soul. Good thing for Hanna, she’s far from normal. As this crazy girl meets an even crazier town, only two things are certain: Anything can happen and no one is safe.
The summary is a little vague on details, but thanks to my amazing selective skimming techniques, all I took away was the possibility of a heroine who may or may not be hallucinating all of the supernatural things happening to her. It’s a premise I’ve been waiting like half my life to see executed, and it’s kind of what I got, except that Bleeding Violet is the story of what would happen if that character moved to Night Vale.
And I fucking loooooooooooooooooooooved it.
I mention Night Vale because that’s an easy frame of reference for both Portero (the town that our heroine Hanna moves to) and the particular flavor of storytelling/horror Bleeding Violet favors. It is all about the casual weirdness. Portero is a hive of strange – creatures that live in the windows and turn people to glass, invisible doors that open to different locations, keys that can grant wishes, boys who can turn to ooze, an omnipotent mayor – but it’s not strange to the people that live there. For them, it’s just a fact of everyday life, so that’s how the book presents it. There’s no big reveal moment, no long info dumps about Portero being, I don’t know, a Hellmouth or something to explain why weird shit happens there. Weird shit just happens, and because Hanna is Hanna, she rolls with it.
It’s surreal, basically. The story establishes from the beginning that the characters are not necessarily going to react the way you think they will, but there’s still a baseline and their actions still track with who they are as characters. Similarly, I said that “weird shit just happens”, but I don’t want to give the impression that this is a lawless land of random encounters and plot convenience magic, because it’s not. Despite its messy tango with reality as we know it, Bleeding Violet works within the parameters it establishes, and is actually quite careful about set up and pay off, so that everything makes sense and feels earned.
The style was right up my alley. I LOVE casual weirdness, and in this case, I think it gives Bleeding Violet a totally unique tone and perspective that I haven’t seen before. I love that this book doesn’t hold your hand, it just sets you on your way with Hanna as your unreliable guide.
Most of all, I love that Portero’s weirdness is not the focus of the story. Portero’s weird is no threat to the world at large, and the city doesn’t need to be fixed or rescued itself, tyvm. I kept waiting for Hanna to be some prophecied scion meant to do something special for her long-lost kingdom, but that never happened, either. The conflict is refreshingly intimate, down to earth, and entirely character-focused.
Hanna is basically everything I ever want in a YA heroine. I loved her. She’s boundlessly confident, forward, and open with her emotions, which is an incredible feat when you deal with as much rejection as she does in this novel. She’s secure in her beauty and isn’t shy about acknowledging it, she’s feminine and stylish and crafty – basically, Hanna has every perky cheerleader trait that YA’s terrible internalized misogyny has told us for years that it’s ~terrible to have~, except that Hanna rocks it all and doesn’t get shamed for it.
It’s fucking revolutionary.
But wait, there’s more! Hanna’s also got some hardcore determination and motivation; she’s clever and resourceful, and willing to go to some pretty extreme lengths to get what she wants. This being the book it is, Hanna’s not a pure shining ray of uncomplicated goodness; Bleeding Violet is dark, and all of the characters do things that would probably make them creepers or bad guys under different circumstances, but that amorality appealed to me. I like complicated female characters, and we get them so goddamn rarely. Both Hanna and her mother were a treat in that respect.
I also appreciated that Hanna was allowed to be pretty sexually liberated. Granted, there are caveats to this that I’ll get in to later, but I liked that Hanna and her love interest Wyatt had sex, and that there was very little ceremony to it. There was a very responsible conversation, but they didn’t have to court for four books or declare their undying love, they just liked each other and wanted to connect. Also neither of them were virgins! Both had had multiple partners!
Holy shit you guys! It’s teenagers who want to fuck, and have sexual histories like actual teenagers! EVERYONE GET YOUR FAINTING CUSHIONSSSSS!
Hanna’s mental illness is also a pretty significant part of her character, but I’m gonna get to that in detail towards the end, so we’ll put a pin in it for now.
Did I mention that the core of Bleeding Violet as a story is the relationship between Hanna and her mother?
Yeah, her mother. Not her boyfriend, not her father, not her male mentor, but her mother. It’s what drives the plot, what drives Hanna. Everything that she does is in a desperate quest for her mother’s love, and it’s so fucking refreshing to see.
Basically, Hanna has been raised her entire life by her father, first in Finland, and then in the US, until he dies and she’s shipped off to live with an aunt. Knowing her mother’s address from an old postcard, Hanna runs away to live with her mother in Portero, only to find that Rosalee vehemently does not want her there.
The relationship is super messy. Rosalee is cold and callous and distant to everyone, but especially to her daughter, who is relentless in her insistence that Rosalee will love her. Meanwhile Hanna is creepily obsessive, impulsive and desperate to prove herself worthy of Rosalee’s affection. Rosalee is cruel, actively pushing Hanna away again and again, while simultaneously offering moments of kindness and affection in spite of herself. Hanna laps up every bit of it, collecting each crumb as evidence that her mother has to feel something for her, pushing herself on Rosalee far beyond the point that most people would have given up.
It’s obviously not the healthiest of relationships, but it’s not meant to be. Rosalee and Hanna are fucked up people with their own traumas and issues and hangups. But seeing the lengths that they eventually go to for each other – how Rosalee struggles against the way she’s lived her entire life, how Hanna clings to the woman despite her devastation every time she’s rejected, the way Hanna fights for her during the climax – makes the story incredibly gratifying. I love seeing women fight so brutally for each other, I love that this book makes that relationship so important, I love that the climax is this great supernatural realization of their conflict and Rosalee’s struggle, I even love the ending. This shit is great.
I suspect that I could kind of go on forever about all of the things I liked about Bleeding Violet: I liked the world, I liked the love interest and Hanna’s relationship with him, I liked the magic and the monsters, I liked Rosalee’s backstory and characterization, I liked that Hanna’s being bi-racial and bi-cultural wasn’t ignored, but didn’t define her character, either, I loved the way the story played out… I love a thousand different things about this book, and if I tried to list all of them, it would just be me recapping the whole thing beat-for-beat and clapping like an overexcited infant, and that would be stupid because you guys could just read it and experience everything for yourselves. The selling points are the ones I’ve gone in to detail about already, and suffice to say that there’re more where that came from.
So, given that gushing enthusiasm, is there anything here that could possibly rain on the parade?
Hanna’s Mental Illness
Here’s where we get in to sticky territory, because I am not familiar at all with bipolar disorder. Not how it manifests, not what its symptoms are, not how it works, none of it. Still, I think it would be irresponsible to not touch on this at least a little, because there were some parts of Hanna’s depiction in Bleeding Violet that gave me pause.
I’d also like to warn that I’m going to be using the word “crazy” quite often, not out of disrespect, but because that is literally how the book bills Hanna.
Also, I’ve been informed that the name that the book uses for Hanna’s mental illness is outdated and potentially triggering, so I’ve updated the review to use the more current terminology.
The first is the violence. Again, I have no idea how bipolar disorder manifests, but Hanna is introduced to us as a violent character, and that violence is specifically tied back to her mental illness. She starts out the book arriving at her mother’s home in Portero in the middle of the night, casually chatting with her dead father in her mind. She breaks in to the house because her father tells her that waking her mother would be getting them off on the wrong foot, and makes a snack in the kitchen until her mother rises to investigate. Eventually it’s revealed that Hanna is covered in blood, having hit her aunt over the head and left her for dead before making her escape to Portero.
Now all of this does an excellent job of establishing the tone of the book, Hanna and Rosalee as characters, and the weird, surreal vibe, but it also establishes Hanna as violent, impulsive, and pointedly remorseless about the whole thing, all of which is at least partially because of her illness. Hanna demonstrates a consistent willingness throughout the book to go to violent extremes – she offers to burn a house down to make her mother happy, threatens to kill herself and “paint the walls with her blood” if she can’t make Rosalee love her, and even, at one point, hits her mother across the head with a rolling pin, nearly killing her.
So yeah, the whole “mentally ill people = violent” trope is in full force here.
Beyond that, I have no idea how well the things we’re meant to attribute to Hanna’s mental illness line up with how bipolar disorder works, or how accurate a portrayal it is. It’s entirely possible that Hanna’s mental illness was just a collection of “crazy”-seeming traits that came out the most interesting on paper. And to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what all we’re supposed to be attributing to the mental illness in the first place.
For me, the problem is that in using Hanna’s bipolar hallucinations and erratic behavior as a way of setting the tone of Bleeding Violet, and the baseline for what her character is willing to do, the book makes it hard to sort out what we’re meant to see as a facet of her mental illness – as, potentially, her “damage” – and what we’re meant to see as just Hanna. This can have problematic implications, because all of the more extreme aspects of Hanna’s personality can easily be attributed to her “crazy”.
So things that I loved, like Hanna’s casual approach to sex, can be seen as – and in retrospect, probably was, at least partially – part of her mania. The same could be said of Hanna’s confidence, her forwardness, obviously her violence, and her obsessive pursuit of her mother. And none of that would be a point of weariness for me, if the book at least made clear that we weren’t supposed to be viewing what I would consider Hanna’s positive decisions (like sleeping with Wyatt) with the same level of side-eye scrutiny as her more obviously creepy ones (you know, like sneaking in to her mother’s room and stitching “I love you” into her mattress). But the book is never entirely clear on that, and in fact, Hanna’s slightly unhinged approach to the world is as much of a source of the surreal as Portero’s casual impossibility.
So look, I appreciate that the characters are not held to some black-and-white moral binary and punished accordingly. I get that they are meant to be people with flaws, and that they all have their weird (I mean, Hanna’s mom eventually surreptitiously stitches “I love you too” under her pillow). But the Gaussian filter that Bleeding Violet puts over its story and characters leaves room for…troubling implications.
Or I could be overthinking it.
I hunted around online to see if I could find reviews that specifically addressed the mental illness aspect of the book, but came up more or less empty-handed except for this review over at Active Voice. If anyone knows of any others, particularly by people who have experience with bipolar disorder, I’d be very interested in reading them and hearing any opinions on the subject.
So, all that being said, is Bleeding Violet ableist? I honestly don’t know. What little I could find on the subject seems to point strongly towards yes, but being fairly neurotypical and having little-to-no knowledge in this area, I can’t say for sure.
This is a toughie. Bleeding Violet has almost everything that I’ve been asking for from YA: a complex heroine, a fascinating world, a great story, great atmosphere, emphasized female relationships, an interracial romance that is not poc/white person, and all of it comes from an amazing black lady author. However, the potential for ableism and a negative/inaccurate portrayal of mental illness is not just there, it’s front and center; it’s the filter through which we view the rest of the story. So while I still tentatively recommend it, it’s not the 100% no-reservations recommendation I wish we could have had.
THREE AND A HALF STARS