We are the granddaughters of the witches you could not burn.The Burning by Laura Bates
Founder of The Everyday Sexism Project, Laura Bates is a campaigner for gender equality and has been awarded with the British Empire Medal (BEM) for her services. Publishing her first book in 2014, Everyday Sexism, Bates corroborated the statistics she found through her online website into a shocking (and in some ways, not so shocking) exposé of incidents that have become so normalised in today’s culture that most people wouldn’t have recognised them for what they were. In her latest book, The Burning, Bates turns to Young Adult Fiction to explore the ways social media affects young people in insidious and damaging ways. Through research talking to teenagers in schools across London, Bates makes clear that although The Burning is a work of fiction, the instances of cyber bullying and harassment that occur in the novel are all taken from real cases. It’s a shocking indictment of the new forms of sexual harassment – which lack the language and law to tackle properly – young girls and women, are facing today.
Prefaced by a story of a former English teacher comparing fire to a tiger, Bates counters this simile with one of her own: fire is like a rumour. Neither can be stopped by a bullet or a fence and they can destroy everything and everyone in their place. The Burning then opens up with Anna – a sixteen year old girl who is in the midst of moving to Scotland with her mother. After the year of hell she’s had, which began with the death of her beloved father, her mother is determined to start a new life for the two of them in the remote village of St Monans. A hasty decision that began only two weeks prior, Anna and her mother have uprooted their lives in busy, bustling Birmingham for the quiet and quaint village in Fife.
Nervous at having to start a new school in the middle of the academic year, Anna is determined to stay under the radar. Having changed her last name and deactivated all of her social media accounts, she hopes for her sake and her mother’s to be able to start afresh. Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, she can’t help but stand out as the new girl. However, things seem to be going her way despite the typical behaviour of some of her fellow peers. She makes friends with Cat and Alisha and gets stuck into her history project of researching a local historical figure.
Accidentally coming across a reference to a witch from St Monans in the 1650s in a library book, Anna’s interest is peaked. Unable to find out more, she tracks down the author of the book to see if he has any information about this footnote. As her own past comes back to haunt her, making life unbearable at her new school, Anna increasingly invests her time in finding out the fate of this ‘witch’, Maggie. Bates interestingly equates the witch hunt that swept seventeenth century Europe to a contemporary ‘witch hunt’ of ‘slut shaming’.
Such an important read for young adults and parents, guardians and teachers of teenagers to highlight the insidious nature of social media and cyber bullying. It also gives language to the harassment Anna suffers instead of shaming young girls for some of the decisions they make. The most poignant moment for me was when Anna’s mum puts her new headmaster in his place after he puts all the blame on Anna for the behaviour of other students. Teaching students (and adults) what is acceptable, legal behaviour and what isn’t is crucial and constantly evolving as new forms of technology come into play. Bates’ writing is also strong. She is able to evoke emotion in her protagonist and I thought the two tales – of Anna and Maggie – weaved really well together. A pressing read for our current times.
The Burning by Laura Bates is published on 21st February 2019. Thank you to Simon & Schuster, via Netgalley, for the review copy.