4 out of 4 stars
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Iris by Toni Owen-Blue is a touchingly poignant tale of middle-grade fiction that is sure to pull on a reader’s heartstrings as it deals with what can only be described as difficult subject matter. What makes this story all the more poignant is the fact that it’s told in first person, from the perspective of the main protagonist, young Iris.
As the story begins, we are introduced to Iris, holding an umbrella, wishing she can fly like the fabled Mary Poppins. She appears to be a typical pre-teen, given to flights of fancy and whimsy but as we quickly learn, Iris isn’t like most girls her age at all. Despite several elliptical references to “Dad”, we are never introduced to Iris’ father, only to her younger brother Walter (“Waltz”) and to Iris’ mother and it quickly becomes apparent that while Iris may be the older sibling in the house, she has duties and responsibilities that would normally fall on someone much older. Waltz is a typical younger brother; getting into all sorts of mischief and driving Iris crazy while at the same time, exhibiting the vulnerable qualities of a young child eager for attention and love. Iris loves her brother dearly but can’t help feeling angry at Waltz’ innate ability to annoy her.
On the face of it, Iris appears to be the perfect daughter – too perfect in fact. She looks after Waltz, feeds him, bathes him, makes sure he does his homework, tidies the kitchen, does her homework, puts her brother to bed – and then stays awake until her mother gets home at all hours of the night. We are told Iris doesn’t like her subjects in school and doesn’t do well in them. She loves to read, with English being her strongest subject and hates Maths, definitely her worst subject. What quickly becomes disturbing after the first few pages of the book is that no matter what Iris does, she doesn’t believe she does it well enough. In fact, what is particularly alarming is the frequency with which she refers to herself as being stupid. It’s not until we’re introduced to Iris’ mother, the absentee parent who puts in an occasional appearance, that we quickly understand where Iris’ inferiority complex stems from. In her mother’s eyes, Iris can do nothing right and her mother makes no bones about pointing this out to Iris every chance she gets.
Thanks to her mother’s incessant conditioning, Iris’ defeatist persona also has a negative effect on her social interactions with both her schoolmates and her teacher. She doesn’t socialize with other kids and they keep her at arm’s length while Iris’ relationship with her teacher isn’t much better. All this appears to change with the arrival of the new student, Lotus. Lotus is unlike anyone Iris has ever met. She’s way cooler than the other kids, both in attitude and in looks, with tattoos along her arms and blue-tinged hair, and from the first moment her eyes lock onto Iris, Lotus sets out to win Iris over, slowly pulling her out of her shell. Iris is impressed when she learns that Lotus’ mother is an artist and that Lotus wants to be a tattoo artist. Lotus is everything that Iris’ wishes she could be and it doesn’t take long for the two to become fast friends. Despite Iris’ mother being off-put by Iris’ new friend, she nevertheless allows Iris to invite Lotus home and then amazes Iris when she prepares an impressive spread for the young girls, doing their hair and makeup afterwards. However, Iris quickly realizes that with her mother, nothing comes without a steep price…
What makes the book Iris equal parts effective and ever so disturbing is the fact that Iris’ family unit of Dad, Mom, Waltz, Iris and the family pet, Tango, all appear to be the perfect family unit, living in a nice house with a nice backyard that has nice flowers in the flowerbeds but as Iris quickly admits at the beginning of the book, “…I know our family isn’t quite like other families you see…”. It’s only once the outer shell is stripped away that we see first-hand the dysfunctional and abusive relationship Iris’ mother has with her children. While the father is mentioned, he’s a non-presence in the book. The lack of parental presence and food in the house to the lack of affection and back-handed compliments edged with censorship and put-downs leave indelible scars that eat away at the psyche and are far more hurtful than any physical abuse – although that also comes as Iris takes a stand against her mother. The author’s choice to tell the story in the first person is the best way to tell a story such as this as Iris bares open her soul to us. We witness her struggles to rise above her mother’s taunts and harsh reprimands, vacillating between believing her mother’s cruel put-downs to trying to find value in her own self-worth. Even at her lowest point, Iris wants nothing more than her mother’s approval and affection, scarce commodities to be sure, and most ironic of all, when others begin to suspect that all is not as it seems in Iris’ life, she cannot trust herself to confide in anyone – even if it means losing a very special friend. Iris is one of those books that weighs heavily on the heart and is sure to touch the reader’s soul. I know that it did mine which is why I’m giving Iris 4 out of 4 stars.
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