Review: Bruised by Sarah Skilton

Review: Bruised by Sarah Skilton

My black belt represents everything I could've done and everything I didn't do, the only time it really mattered.

Sarah Skilton's debut novel, Bruised, opens with a gut-punch of a first scene. Imogen, a 16-year old Tae Kwon Do black belt has just witnessed a gunman be shot and killed by police while attempting a holdup at the diner. Imogen hides under a table, paralyzed as the events unfold before her.

Thanks to her years of training to achieve her black belt, Imogen always believed that she was stronger than everyone else, a real-life superhero, that she could and would diffuse a volatile situation. In the aftermath of the violence at the diner, she's wracked by guilt, convinced that she should have saved the gunman.

Imogen's entire identity is wrapped up in her Tae Kwon Do achievements. She studied hard to achieve her mediocre grades so she could practice the sport, was in constant training, followed the discipline's rules about behavior and conduct and ate all the right things. And yet, for Imogen, those years of work were all for naught when it really mattered that day at the diner.

This belief sends Imogen's sense of who she is into a tailspin as she has to piece her identity back together as she navigates her changing family relationships, friendships and her relationship with a boy, Ricky, who understands her experience in a way that no one else can.

The sharpest element of Bruised is Imogen's voice--it's absolutely unwavering in its authenticity.

If a girl punches someone, she's crazy. If a guy punches someone, he's dealing with his feelings. He's normal.

Imogen is full of pain and disappointment and an overwhelming sense of being profoundly lost. She copes with her entire world being in upheaval in ways that may seem illogical and even unwise to adult eyes, but feels very realistic for a 17-year old. She impulsively steals (fruit flavored) vodka from the liquor cabinet; she makes snap judgments about her friends and family;  and she behaves very recklessly. 

Imogen's relationships with her family members are particularly difficult and irrational, in a wholly believable way. She's extremely critical of her diabetic father's lifestyle and brutal to her older brother, Hunter, who becomes involved with one of her friends and makes choices Imogen disapproves of. 

While a less skilled writer's depiction of a teen making frustrating choices would annoy me, Sarah Skilton's portrayal of a girl on the edge is so sensitive and so real (for lack of a better word) that it made me ache. I could feel Imogen's downward spiral as she wallowed in her guilt and shame.

I feel chilled, clammy. I'm along. I can't go back to martial arts, I've lost my friends, I'm failing school--what's left? How am I supposed to spend the endless days ahead of me? I have nothing to work toward, nothing to achieve.

Authenticity was also the name of the game when it came to Imogen's developing relationship with Ricky, the other teen who hid under a table during the holdup.

Imogen has always been focused on her Tae Kwon Do, so she is rather immature when it comes to boys and dating and as a result, her growing closeness with the more mature Ricky provides a mix of serious and lighthearted moments.

Dad shakes his hand and says, “Nice to meet you, too.”

“The gym is really well equipped. Thanks for letting me use it,” Ricky says.

“Well, that’s entirely Imogen’s doing. She picked everything out.”

“Dad, can we chat later?” I ask, giving Ricky a “Don’t contradict me” look. “We’re in the middle of something.”

Ricky ignores me. “Mr. Malley, I was wondering if I might have your permission to take Imogen out to dinner on Saturday.”

Is this actually happening? What are we, an 1800s family?

Dad cracks a smile, removes his glasses, cleans them, and places them back on. His eyes are tiny and then huge again. “Sure. Assuming that’s okay with you, honey?” he says to me.

“Uh. Yeah. Sounds good.”

And that’s how Ricky Alvarez asks me out.

Imogen begins sparring with Ricky in her home gym, both determined they'll never be vulnerable again, and their like/lust is all wrapped up in their shared traumatic experience.

Some acne scars dot his cheeks and forehead, but they just make him more beautiful, because he's real, he's so wonderfully real, and he's the only one who'll understand. I'll be under that table, on some level, for the rest of my life, but so will he.

It's awkward and complex and moving and sweet. It's real.

The final important note of authenticity came through in Skilton's portrayal of sports, specifically Tae Kwon Do.

I often find myself frustrated by books claiming to have strong sports elements. More often than not, if the protagonist is female, the sports element just serves as window dressing (*ahem*) for the rest of the plot--the sports element gives the character a "thing," but isn't explored in depth, even though sports-playing YA girls are nearly invariably really, really good at their chosen sport.

Bruised, distinguishing itself from so many YA novels, shines in its portrayal of a young athlete. Like many teens who are invested in athletics, Imogen's chosen sport has been her primary motivator for years and years. Her happiness and self-identity is wrapped up in her successes and failures as an athlete (think Smash's relationship with football on Friday Night Lights). Even her relationships with boys, her sibling and her parents are influenced by this.

More than anything, though, the Tae Kwon Do school is where Imogen feels most at home, most like herself. 

The school was my home. It made me feel like I could do anything. Every kid should get to have that feeling, even if it doesn't last.

Finally, I cannot help but recommend this book to fans of Elizabeth Scott's woefully under-read 2012 novel, Miracle, and vice-versa.

Thematically, they are very similar and explore the complex nuances of loss, trauma and self-forgiveness as well as the burdens associated with survivorship. While I preferred Miracle by a hair, teen readers will likely connect more with Skilton's take on these subjects, especially those involved in sports and who may sympathize with Imogen's frustrations with academics.

And I thought, this is what love is: all the possibilities.

While Bruised isn't a perfect novel--in particular, there's far too speedy of resolution to Imogen's family issues--Imogen's story is one that lingers with its spot-on characterization and realistic exploration of self-forgiveness through the eyes of a wholly believable narrator.

FNL Character Rating: Smash Williams
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Disclosure: Thank you to Abrams for a review copy of Bruised.

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