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Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi

After a traumatic life bounced around foster homes, Bitter finally finds a safe haven when she is awarded a place at Eucalyptus, a private art school. Here she can stay for free for as long as she likes and grow her talents.

A mystery surrounds who is funding this school and paying Miss Virtue, the principal. She treats all the students with great kindness, and they feel she would go to horrific lengths to protect them, but who is she really, and who is she working for?

In the surrounding city of Lucille, Dian Theron, a corrupt billionaire, is in control. Assata, a protest movement of young activists are the only ones brave enough to protest against him and his monstrous henchmen. They constantly risk being arrested, wounded, and even killed. And the violence is escalating.

Some of Bitter’s new friends from Eucalyptus support Assata and join in the protests but, terrified of being caught up in the violence, she won’t. Anyway, she thinks it ridiculous that adults want young people to be the ones saving the world because in her opinion they broke everything in the first place.

When Eddie, one of her friends is shot in the face and loses an eye, Bitter, closeted in her room paints a terrifying creature through which she expresses all her fury and grief at this, and all the other atrocities perpetrated by the authorities.

Bitter has a magical ability to bring a creature to life if she smears a painting with her own blood. She wants this one to be a weapon for the people and to show them she’s done something right. It is her way of helping, even if she is not on the front lines.

A terrifying angel pushes its way out of her canvas. It calls itself Vengeance, and vengeance is what it means to inflict. But carnage is not what Bitter is after, enough people have already died.

She overcomes her fears and goes to Assata to confess what she has done, only to find that other such angels have also been called out and have teamed up with Vengeance.

How will the Assata protestors respond? Will they hunt with the angels, or deplore their violence? And should the angels begin to spiral out of control on their vengeful killing spree, how can they possibly be reigned in?

The violence in Bitter is horrendous and difficult to read in parts but there is also a tender love story between Bitter and Aloe. He is kind and wise, has the gift of healing and understands her pain.

Although Lucille is an imaginary city and there is a fantasy element, the political violence and oppression which happened there keeps happening in various parts of the world. It feels all too real.

Akwaeke Emezi, the author of this YA novel, experienced riots and a dictatorship firsthand as a very young child in Nigeria. Her intention in writing this book was to show that people of any age should not feel guilty if, like Bitter, they don’t want to be on the front lines. There are other ways to assist, it can be through art.

Quite a few of the characters in Bitter are LGBTQ+ as she is herself. They are a group in society who are underrepresented in literature. So books such as Bitter allow teenagers like them to be seen and make them feel accepted.

I often read a book, and then put it away and give it no further thought. But Bitter is a story that lingers in my mind. It challenges you think about the imperfect world we live in, and how we all have a part to play to build a fair and just society where young people, of every sexual orientation, can feel safe.

Review: Lyn Potter

Faber & Faber


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