Beautiful and doomed are what first spring to mind when one encounters Demi, the young woman who dies tragically at the start of Sharp Edges, the new young adult novel released by our own award-winning SA Partridge (pictured).
The author’s been named one of Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans for her contribution to South African literature; her novel The Goblet Club won the SABC/You I am a Writer Competition (2007), in addition to the MER Prize for Best Youth Novel at the M-Net Via Afrika Awards (2008) and Dark Poppy’s Demise was awarded the MER Prize for Best Youth Novel at the Media24 Literary Awards (2012).
What is immediately apparent in the story is the brokeness of its characters. Each is mired in his/her own universe and is damaged in some way. Partridge says: “The idea of Sharp Edges was to craft a novel around broken teenagers. I wanted to delve inside a group of friends and explore each one as an individual. Each character is damaged in a different way, not only as a result of the death they all witnessed, but because of their haunted pasts. I started off knowing Demi was going to die. She is the central planet the rest of the characters orbit around.
“As for the rest of them, I knew there would be five. Two more girls, three guys as they all had to divide neatly into pairs. V’s and James’ stories are interlinked, as are Demi’s and Damian’s, as well as Ashley’s and Siya’s. I tackled each one separately, ensuring I got the voice just right, and to make them as human as possible.”
Demi seems to draw the others to her, but Partridge says Demi is far from perfect: “She’s self-absorbed and has a drug problem. She is only perfect through the eyes of the other characters, which is often what happens when someone close to you dies – you make them faultless. I wanted Demi to be a typical teenage girl and in my mind, typical teenagers are seldom perfect.”
Subtle power games underpinned the characters’ interactions. Demi takes for granted that others gravitate towards her and in that way exists in her own bubble. Yet the others are motivated by how much or how little power they have over the other, consciously and unconsciously.
“A certain level of social hierarchy exists in all groups,” says Partridge. “There will always be an alpha, which in this case was Demi. I think the only character who was aware of this was Ashley, as she feels like an outsider, always trying to fit in and gain acceptance with the group.
“Each character has their own awareness of the world, and all represent real teenage viewpoints, so while Demi was oblivious to Ashley’s struggle, V was too focused on her own doomed relationship to notice the other girl’s pain. Each person had a different viewpoint of the group. I focused quite a bit on perception, and how one situation can be perceived in different ways.”
The author chose to begin the novel with Demi’s death and pretty much told the story out of sequence, going back in time, which can be a challenge to avoid key characters giving up vital information while still building tension.
Partridge says: “It was challenging, to say the least. Each chapter is set from the viewpoint of a different character, and each character has a different perception of what happened and who was to blame. In this way the reader picks up both clues and red herrings as the characters aren’t 100 percent sure of what happened themselves.
“Plus, they’ve all scattered and aren’t communicating with each other. No one is taking James’ calls, Ashley has skipped town. It is ultimately up to the reader to piece together what happened. As for going back in time, I swopped the chapters around quite a bit until I was satisfied with the order of events.”
The story seed for Sharp Edges was planted at music festivals, Partridge says: “I go to quite a few music festivals and I’m always struck by just how much mayhem young people get up to at these events. I’ve seen teens lying unconscious under trees, I’ve seen groups of boys running around shirtless and screaming and girls staggering around in the darkness. They don’t care about the consequences. All that matters is the party. I thought it was the perfect setting for a tragic tale.
“I think perhaps adults have conveniently forgotten, or believe kids know better. Plus, not all kids are crazy party animals. Ashley, for example, isn’t as into it as her friends seem to believe, and Siya has more important things on his mind. I do think however, that it’s a very real problem with very real consequences and it would be irresponsible of me as a writer not to address that.”