Book Review: Far From You, Tess Sharpe

It’s ‘a love story, wrapped up in a murder mystery bow.’ It’s a sharp, searing exploration of being young and queer in the rural United States, it’s a stunning debut novel, and it will break your heart, even as you’ll be stunned by the brilliance of Sharpe’s craftswomanship. Far From You is meticulously researched, but also written from lived experience. Sharpe is a young, queer voice to watch, but don’t be tricked into thinking that queerness is all that she wants to write — in Far From You, she delves into disability, and she’s also interested in subjects like rural poverty and how class shapes social experiences. In other words, as a writer (and a human — thanks for introducing us, Corinne!), she’s right up my alley.

Bouncing around a complex timeline, Far From You traces Sophie Winters’ recovery from the aftermath of her best friend Mina’s death. She’s determined to find out what Mina died for, even though everyone around her blames it on a drug deal gone wrong — but she knows that wasn’t the case, because she was there, and she was clean, no matter what the bag of pills someone else planted in her pocket might lead people to believe. Sophie is desperate to solve the mystery and bring Mina’s killer to justice, but she’s also trying to reconcile the Mina she knew, a girl who kept a closetful of secrets, with the woman she could have become.

In the past, readers see how the relationship between Mina and Sophie shifted and evolved, and how what was a deep friendship became something else, but how Mina hotly denied it and invested all her energy in going out with boys, trying to set Sophie up with her brother, and attempting to appear as straight as possible. Mina knew what many rural teens know, which is that it can be extremely dangerous to be out in a community where people like you are hated, but she also struggled with pressure from family and her friends. Now that she’s gone, it’s too late.

Two things about Far From You kept me drawn deep into the narrative, as a reader who’s not generally wild about contemporary fiction. The first was that Sophie is bisexual, and very, very explicit about it. She likes Mina but she also likes boys, and she clearly states that she’s bisexual in the text, which is highly unusual in YA, even gay YA, where it’s often implied or suggested or assumed, but characters never actually say the B word. Bisexual invisibility is a serious issue in the real world as well as in YA, which is why it’s important to have characters like Sophie, depicting bisexual experiences, identifying as bi, and challenging social attitudes about what it means to be bisexual and what bisexuality looks like.

The other compelling aspect of her characterisation is, of course, her disability. Sophie was severely injured in a car accident at 14, walks with a limp, and has massive surgical scars. She lives with aching leg and back pain caused by the accident and struggles to get them under control, which is how she developed a dependence on oxycontin. The depiction both of Sophie’s variable pain and the slow slide from using pain medication in an attempt to control pain to abusing it in an attempt to deaden the world is subtle, nuanced, and brilliant. So is the exploration of alternative pain management options that Sophie explores when she gets clean and recognises that, as an addict, she can’t safely use opiod painkillers and she needs to find safe alternatives that will still control her pain.

Chronic pain isn’t a topic of frequent coverage in media and pop culture, especially that among women. When it is covered, it’s usually in the context of scaremongering pieces about ‘fakers’ trying to scam pills, rather than actual human beings struggling to access adequate pain control. It’s tricky, thorny, and complex — it doesn’t manifest consistently, it’s highly variable from day to day, and it has a myriad of tiny effects on your life that most people don’t consider. In this case, there’s the obvious — the fact that Sophie can’t run from Mina’s killer at the scene of the crime is a major plot point — but there’s also the subtle. We see Sophie tired and trying to push through when the people around her expect her to. We see Sophie adjusting her gait unconsciously to compensate for her weakened leg. And we see the relief she experiences when she manages brief bursts of control over her pain (not in an overcoming pain through magical means kind of way, but with the help of therapies and treatments) and gains an understanding of what it’s like to live without it.

Car accidents are a depressingly common fact of life in rural communities, especially for teens. A combination of youth, inexperience, and poor roads can be deadly, or can lead to serious injuries, like those Sophie is living with. Far From You also captured the experience of the driver, with Trevor constantly living with the regret of what he’d done to Sophie. His regret and protectiveness were also mixed with his feelings of attraction for her, and his confusion about her sexuality — and both were even further complicated by the fact that he was Mina’s brother. In that charged, chaotic environment, the relationship between the two is fraught, but it’s also an honest exploration of what happens to the people left to pick up the pieces after a death.

You’ll have to read Far From You to find out who killed Mina, but likely the murder mystery will be one of the furthest things from your mind as you get caught up in the love story.