Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma

There are few taboo topics in YA lit. The idea of the taboo itself has been a topic that’s been misunderstood, too, as this article incorrectly suggests abortion in teen lit as one of those topics (I can think of two books off the top of my head that deal with that issue straight on). You know what’s been taboo though? What’s always been taboo: incest.

Back at ALA Midwinter during the Simon and Schuster preview, Forbidden was one that was pitched as an in house favorite. I was eager to read this one, knowing full well the topic at hand. And everything that the publicists suggested about this book is indeed true.

Lochan and Maya are the oldest two children in a family with many siblings. Mom’s a deadbeat, always out for long nights with one guy or another, despite claiming that this one will be the right one. Dad skipped down long ago, moving from England all the way to Australia. He’s never been back and frankly, Lochan and Maya know he won’t be back.

In short: Lochan and Maya have become the surrogate parents to three siblings. But to one another, they’re more than siblings. They’re best friends. Or maybe they’re something more. Is that a line they can cross? Absolutely not. It’s clear that incest is wrong, illegal, disgusting. For these two teens, though, amid surging hormones, a rocky home life, and genuine attraction, it’s hard not to control themselves. There’s a lot of push and pull — they want to follow their guts but their minds tell them not to.

Until, of course, they make the decision that changes the entire course of their lives forever.

As I’ve mentioned a couple times, my educational background is in psychology, and one of the things that you learn in relationship psychology is how situational stress can heighten any emotion. When you’re in an emotionally heightened state, you can transfer those feelings elsewhere as a way to calm those feelings. So, it’s been said that if you’re on a first date, you should do something involving a lot of adrenaline or fear — going on a roller coaster, climbing somewhere very high — rather than going to a movie. You move your fear or anxiety elsewhere, and it can become instead an emotion of investment and attraction to the person you’re with, and vice versa.

I bring this all up not to discredit whatever genuine emotional connection there is between Lochan and Maya, but instead as a way to further inform your reading of the title. The home life that these siblings have is atrocious. They’ve really become makeshift parents to their younger siblings, and the stress and aggravation therein compels the two of them to find some solace, and their solace happens to be with one another. There’s definite frustration, and it’s palpable. And when these two decide to pursue their relationship, the frustration only multiples and intensifies, until they make a decision that literally changes their lives forever.

Forbidden is a fast-paced read, but it is in no way an easy read. Because of the topic at hand, you read carefully, and if you do it well, you go in with an open mind. The challenge, of course, is that our innate sensibilities tell us over and over that what these characters are experiencing is wrong. This is again why I offer a means of thinking about this differently, a way of navigating this tricky story if you can’t emotionally invest in that aspect of the story. I could; I thought Suzuma did something pretty significant in making me buy into their love for one another. Although I was uncomfortable throughout the course of the story — both the moments leading up to their admissions to one another and in the moments where they let their emotions play out — I was able to read it without judging and without letting my own mind mess with the greater arc of the story.

Lochan and Maya are both fully fleshed characters, as is their mother. Despite being in the story very little, she still plays a major role in the story, and we do get to know her pretty well. She’s neglectful, but only to a certain extent (or arguable, she’s only neglectful — that’s something for you to decide when the story concludes). I found myself really liking and sympathizing for both Lochan and Maya in the story, though I latched on a little bit more to Lochan’s story because he’s also earned a reputation at school for never talking. He’s a very attractive guy, but he’s repelled most peers because he doesn’t talk much. I found this to be a part of the story that’s left a bit open throughout, and it was something that could have been filled out a bit more. But with the ending of the story, it almost makes sense we don’t get to see this aspect of his character come full circle.

This book is not shy. That should be fairly obvious from the topic explored, but I want to be clear that it is explicit when it comes to sexual situations. This is not a book to hand to your sensitive readers, nor your younger readers. If you are at all familiar with the VC Andrews classic Flowers in the Attic, you will know this going in. The two stories tread similar worlds, though Suzuma is more successful in crafting a contemporary, believable situation that tugs more at the reader’s emotions, especially in the end.

Reading Forbidden reminded me a lot of reading Lucy Christopher’s Stolen (reviewed here). I think it’s going to be a title that’s just as divisive as Christopher’s, too: some readers will be enthralled with the story and engrossed with how such a tricky topic can be tackled and some readers will want nothing to do with the story and be repelled by it. I felt a little bit of both sets of emotions reading it, though in the end I think it’s one that is worth reading. Again, there’s a lot of barriers to remove prior to going in, but it’s worth it. Suzuma’s writing itself is smooth and fluid, and she’s convincing enough to keep you reading. For American readers, some of the Britishisms might be a little challenging, but it’s not insurmountable nor something that will turn off readers entirely.

Know your readers before handing this title over! It’s one you should definitely have in your collection, since there is a readership. Fans of V. C. Andrews, especially her now-ya-branded Flowers in the Attic will want to read this one, as will fans of Stolen or other psychologically-gripping realistic fiction. Those who’ve always wondered about the what ifs will find this an absorbing read. I do think that the young adult audience is the right readership for this sort of book: adult readers can be more close minded, more willing to turn away at the instance of anything that disagrees with their moral/ethical/legal compass, and I think that this story will tap into the curiosity toward the taboo that teens are more willing to explore. That said, I’m pretty positive there will be plenty of adults who have their interests piqued by this one.

Review copy received by the publisher. Forbidden will be released June 28.

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  1. says

    I've been hearing this book is extraordinary and I'm anxious to get my hands on it. I have nothing but respect for writers who can tackle the really tough stuff in a believable and poignant way. Love the review.

  2. says

    Wow- I had no idea what Forbidden was about! I'm intrigued, but agree that you would absolutely need to know a reader well before handing this book over. I'm reminded somewhat of Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now – incest between cousins was a key part of the story, but many didn't seem to be bothered by it. Consider Forbidden added to my summer reading list!

  3. says

    I am definitely intrigued, especially since I was one of those teens reading Flowers in the Attic when it first came out (branded as YA now, really?). It is definitely a difficult topic, so thank you for the great review. I hope it makes others give the book a chance if they wouldn't before.

  4. says

    @Michelle: This was totally unexpected, in a really good way. I was a little nervous about it, how it would play out, and whether it would be handled tactfully, rather than as a means to be a shocking element in a story. I was pleasantly surprised.

    @Katie: I haven't read the Rosoff book, but I'm going to add it to my to-read list.

    @Kristi: I read Flowers in the Attic in my teens. I was never traumatized by it — the entire idea was kind of fascinating, perhaps because it was one of those things you never hear about/see. That's part of why I think this book will go over quite well, so long as people put it on their library shelves without judgment.

  5. says

    An interesting topic for sure. I'm not sure if I can get cozy with the idea but I've read so many reviews that describe the book as allowing the reader to do just that. An interesting concept, definitely.

  6. says

    What a well-written, thoughtful review. I wasn't sure I wanted to read this one or not, but after reading your review, I'm definitely going to give it a try. Thanks!

  7. says

    Kelly, thanks for that thoughtful review. I don't think this is one I'm going to be able to read, but I will recommend that our teen librarian purchase it.

  8. says

    You were right on the money on this one. Your comparison to Stolen hooked me in for sure and I agree, Forbidden was as tough a read but also so well written and thoughtfully done. Particularly given the most difficult subject. It was a tough read but one I enjoyed as it made me really dig deep emotionally. I would highly recommend it for those looking for something that makes them think more than usual.

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