By Juno Dawson
(Quercus Children’s, £7.99)
I love addiction memoirs. Love, love, love them. When I gave up alcohol for a month recently, I swapped pints for print, averaging a book a day by addicts with a variety of habits. During this binge I read Clean, a young adult title by Juno Dawson. I was aware of Dawson’s journalism and trans activism but hadn’t encountered her books – so popular that she was crowned Queen of Teen, the now sadly defunct award for YA writers, in 2014. And, despite being almost two decades older than her target audience, I will be working through her back catalogue on the strength of Clean.
While it’s pacy, funny and in parts very touching, Clean is most definitely not subtle. We meet Lexi Volkov in the back of a BMW after an accidental overdose. She is convinced she has been kidnapped, but actually her brother Nikolai has bundled her into the back seat and driven her to a rehab facility for young people located on an island off the English coast.
“‘Put me down, you c***!’ I scream… They ignore me so I just start screaming ‘C***’ over and over again because it’s the worse word I know.”
Sweary, cynical and quick with a comeback
Lexi is a teenage socialite, scion of a Russian family of hoteliers. And she is great company. Sweary, cynical and quick with a comeback, she feels real. Some of the Russian details, however, are laboured (“I wonder what Babushka would think of me now?”).
What feels spot-on are the group dynamics and fledgling friendships that take place once Lexi has undergone eight painful days of detox and joins group therapy sessions. The other residents have a variety of reasons for being there – eating disorders, drug use, OCD. The three who really stand out are Sasha, a damaged and dangerous young woman who scared the hell out of me, trans woman Kendall, frail but determined and with a great sense of humour, and Guy, an OCD sufferer with parents who are palpably and constantly disappointed in him.
Characters in isolation, together
It’s a neat idea for a book: a residential unit for the under-21s on an island it’s extremely difficult to escape from – a cast of outcasts in isolation together.
Unlike the majority of facilities I read about during my marathon memoir sessions, Lexi’s is seriously glamorous – Jacuzzis, equine therapy, en-suite bathrooms, TV on demand – which makes for a much more fun backdrop. If you have to give up the smack and look at the reasons why you were taking it, Dawson’s reasoning seems to go, it might as well be somewhere fabulous. Gossip Girl goes to rehab, if you will.
I thoroughly enjoyed the flashbacks to Lexi’s lavish life before her sojourn on addiction island and her disastrous but captivating relationship with Kurt, apart from some heavy-handed mystery surrounding Lexi’s former best friend. The bitchy social whirl of her world is captured with gossipy gusto, but it’s the glimpses of a Lexi who is cleverer and more thoughtful than her public persona allows that stayed with me.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe she is 17 – when Kurt, whose middle name should be trouble in caps lock, asks her how old she is, she replies, “In socialite years? About 28” – but with the family fortune to play with and divorced parents who seldom know which country their children are in, Dawson just about gets away with it.
As, indeed, does Lexi, whose path through rehabilitation has a number of twists before she becomes more heroine than heroin. Look elsewhere for nuance, but for a rambunctious read about teen addiction, Clean hits the spot.