*This review will contain spoilers!*
First things first, I need to say a huge thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing, for accepting my request to view this title on NetGalley, and to NetGalley for the service that they provide.
‘Anorexia hurts. Starving yourself ain’t pretty. When your weight gets low enough, everything aches, all the time. You get so cold, like your bones are pure winter. Your hair falls out and your skin dries into a million little cracks. You grow hair on your back. Your joints feel rusted. It gets so your brain is iced over. Even cushions are too hard to sit on, it hurts that much.’
‘The cigarette between my fingers is thin, unsubstantial. Like me.’
There’s something so effective about this first sentence. It instantly establishes how Hedda thinks of her thinness. It’s the first thing she tells people about herself; it’s the first thing you notice, because it’s so obvious. She doesn’t try to hide it, because she’s proud. Anorexia is a big part of who she is.
Before Hedda’s friend Molly died, she gave her a list. The list included all of the things that Molly wanted Hedda to do; all of the things she didn’t have time to experience for herself. One of those included losing her virginity, so Hedda ticked that one off on the night of Molly’s funeral.
Five months later, Hedda is astonished to discover she’s pregnant. She wondered if her eating disorder, Nia, had done some serious damage to her internal organs, because her stomach was swollen. After having practically come to terms with the fact that she had cancer, a baby was the last thing she could have expected. Pregnancy shouldn’t have even been possible at her weight.
Instantly, Hedda decides to have a termination. But on second thoughts, this baby is obviously a fighter, being able to survive with a lack of nutrients. She changes her mind, and decides to put the baby up for adoption instead. Her parents are unhappy – that’s their grandchild, and they feel they deserve to know her – but Hedda’s made her decision.
Until the baby comes four weeks early. The adoption has yet to be arranged, and the moment the baby is placed in Hedda’s arms she knows she can’t let her go. Hedda decides to keep Rose and move back in with her parents, but when that doesn’t work out she has no choice but to go it alone.
Her neighbour, Robin, has been supportive throughout the pregnancy, and for the first couple of months of Rose’s life he’s at Hedda’s beck and call. But Robin has a past, and it doesn’t take long for it to come between them. With Hedda still fighting against Nia, will she be strong enough to vanquish her for Rose, or will she be joining Molly and leaving her daughter alone?
If there’s one thing that it’s important to say about this book, it’s this.
‘Countless’ DOES NOT glamourise eating disorders.
I’ve never seen such a no holds barred approach to writing EDs, particularly in YA. Because we’re in Hedda’s mind we experience every dizzy spell, every wave of nausea, every ache and pain filling her bones. Molly’s already died from her eating disorder, and Laurel, Hedda’s other old friend from the unit, doesn’t seem far off. Simply stated: eating disorders can be lethal. It’s not a lifestyle choice, it’s a choice between life or death.
None of the stereotypical ED tropes are used. There’s no miraculous recovery. Even when Hedda decides she wants to get past Nia and get her life back, it’s an uphill struggle which she almost doesn’t survive. There’s no boy to make her better: even though there’s almost a relationship, she doesn’t put her anorexia on the back burner just because Robin’s in the picture. In fact, the struggle of juggling their friendship with her eating disorder puts even more strain on her. Robin cooks for her, and every single mouthful is a fight. Not even Rose can save her. Hedda makes the decision to recover for herself, and the importance of that is stressed.
I’ve read so many YA books dealing with eating disorders that have used relationships to ‘fix’ their characters, and it’s unrealistic. Yes, that can occasionally happen, but the reality is that mental illness isn’t that simple to cure. I was so grateful that Karen decided to write a more authentic ED experience, and I hope that other authors take notes from her in the future.
‘Countless’ not only shows how Hedda’s impacted by her ED, it also shows how her family are affected. Instead of them being utterly oblivious, they knew exactly what was going on with her. Her mother worries that her sister, Tammy, is going to use Hedda as a role model. Her father withdraws into himself, eventually filing for a divorce when they discover he’s been having an affair for years.
I recommend this book extremely highly. As someone who struggled with disordered eating in the past, I always find it difficult to read it in novels. Oftentimes it brings all of the feelings flooding back to me, making me want to restrict my eating and start calorie counting once more. Karen Gregory is so careful not to do that. Looking back at other YA books that feature EDs, I can’t think of a single one that is this vigilant.
‘Countless’ is Karen Gregory’s debut novel, and I cannot wait to read more of her writing.