‘Massive’ by Julia Bell

*This review will contain spoilers!* 

‘Massive’ is a story focusing on eating disorders, particularly bulimia nervosa, so if you’re sensitive to issues regarding eating disorders and you find it to be triggering, please don’t read this review!

I must try harder, I write, pressing the biro into my biology book, not to eat. It is this which is at the root of my problems, I have decided. Not Mum and Dad, or Nana or Kelly or Maxine and Paisley, but this: my puffy face, my swelling breasts, my belly. If I was beautiful, I could have everything I wanted.’ 

‘Massive’ is Julia Bell’s debut novel, and was first published way back in 2002. It tells the story of Carmen, whose mother has had bulimia since Carmen was born. Carmen has grown up with a deeply ingrained love/hate relationship with food, as her mother has begged her to keep food diaries, participate in her diets with her, and avoid the food that her step-father, Brian, would cook for her to keep her eating. 
When Carmen’s mother decides to leave Brian and move them both to Birmingham, things get worse for Carmen. Being alone with her mother means that there’s hardly ever any food in the house, so Carmen struggles with her eating, over-eating when she’s at her grandmother’s house and then starving when she gets home. As well as this, her mother takes all of her frustrations out on her – regularly calling Carmen a piggy, and criticising her for the clothes that she chooses to wear because of her fat face and the fact that she can no longer fit into a size 12.  
Carmen’s mother continues dieting, forcing herself to get thinner and thinner, so it’s no real surprise when Carmen starts purging too. Her grandmother is obese, so she goes to her house and feels disgusted at the weight that she’s seeing, then she internalises it and she feels disgusted with herself also. Lisa, her aunt, is concerned about her, as is Billy, her mother’s ex-boyfriend, but because Carmen is nowhere near as dangerously thin as her mother, nothing is really done to assist her. 
I have a lot of issues with this novel, and the primary on of them is this: if you’re talking about eating disorders, and if you’re calling people fat and using abusive language about them, please don’t use real sizes. Keep it vague, keep it impersonal, and it will be a lot better for a lot of people. I am a size 12, so I know that I am not big at all – I can see that what Carmen’s mother is saying to her is illogical and is a form of mental abuse to keep her in line. However, a reader who is a size 18 or a size 20 might (I’m saying ‘might’ because I don’t know, but it just seems like a possibility) just see a personal attack to their size and it might make them feel uncomfortable and unhappy, and that’s not the point of reading – even if you’re reading something harrowing and heart-wrenching. 
Also, Carmen is just a horrible character. She’s not a horrible character written well, she’s just not very well-written: her abrupt attitude shift when she starts her new school is unbelievable, and it’s awful when she starts bullying the fat girl in her class, spitting in her face and using homophobic slurs towards her. This is partially because of the two girls she starts hanging out with, Maxine and Paisley, but Carmen is a very active participant in the bullying behaviour, so she doesn’t get let off with just being a bystander. 
I did appreciate the fact that her mother had bulimia and her grandmother was obese – the contrast between the two women and the fact that Carmen had no healthy role models from which to learn a stable relationship with food. It was very cleverly written, and it was rather realistic – the way her mother starved herself as a way of control and as a way to separate herself from her family was very psychologically astute and made a terrifying amount of sense. 
In all honesty, I wasn’t enamoured with the writing style either. If it had just been the characters I might have been able to overlook it, but the fact that I didn’t click with the writing style either makes me think it wasn’t their personalities so much as how they were written that I was having issues with. I think I might have been expecting too much, because the last book I read that focused on eating disorders was ‘Wintergirls’ by Laurie Halse Anderson, and the prose in that novel is on a completely different level. 
‘Massive’ just felt a bit too obvious for me – the mum’s ex-boyfriend being Carmen’s father, the metaphor of the hedge overgrowing uncontrollably outside the grandparent’s house meant to represent the wildness that was her mum in the throws of bulimia, and the vague ending that implied Carmen’s disordered eating was continuing. I might have enjoyed it more if the issue of Carmen’s eating had actually been resolved – or even dealt with! – but because of the state that her mother had gotten herself into, everyone seemed to overlook the fact that Carmen had been in the house with no food too. There was a throwaway comment of concern from her grandmother (“I won’t have you going the same way.”) but when you considered the fact that they hadn’t noticed her purging for what must have been months, it doesn’t seem likely that they’re going to have their eyes on her that closely in the future. The last paragraph contained this quote: 

‘I can feel my skin tightening, like cling film pulling taut around the soft contours of my body.’ 

and if that’s supposed to imply that Carmen is now happy and content with her size and shape then blow me down, it doesn’t come across that way. I just hate novels like this that deal with these terrifically massive issues that people genuinely suffer from and don’t really give much hope for recovery – it just seems to imply that you’ll always be a sufferer, and there’s no way for you to reclaim your healthy relationship with food once you’ve been through something like this.

I wonder if I would have enjoyed this novel more if I’d read it when I was younger, because the protagonist is only fourteen and you can definitely feel that in her mannerisms and her attitude. She’s very childish, constantly rebelling and skiving off of school, but you can definitely understand it with the upheaval that she’s gone through due to her mother’s selfishness. It just seems like it’s aimed at the lower end of the young adult spectrum, so that might be why I didn’t connect to it. 
I’d been expecting a lot more from this novel, so I’m feeling quite disappointed. Hopefully I’ll enjoy Julia’s recent release, ‘The Dark Light’, a bit more.