At first glance, readers might not spot similarities between J. C. Carleson’s The Tyrant’s Daughter (2014) and Gabrielle Prendergast’s Audacious (2013).
Laila, the 15-year-old daughter of an assassinated dictator, flees to North America with the aid of authorities who recognize the family’s vulnerability with shifting political power in their homeland.
Raphaelle, at 16 years old, isn’t sure how to decorate her new room and whether to keep a snazzy dress that she once thought was perfect.
But, in fact, the tyrant’s daughter is audacious, and Raphaelle’s family is seemingly intact but actually fragmented.
Both girls are struggling with a sense of dislocation and questions of identity, belonging, and betrayal.
And each girl makes a major decision which is heavily criticized by some and has far-reaching ramifications.
But the trappings of the stories are clearly different.
Although both novels are rooted in realism, J.C. Carleson’s is fiction inspired by real events.
As a former CIA officer, travelling through one of Saddam Hussein’s opulent properties in Iraq, J. C. Carleson saw a story in a “palace of a playhouse”.
She wondered who those children were, who had played in that elaborate structure built into the side of a hill: “When they came of age and learned more, were they shocked?”
In The Tyrant’s Daughter, the girl with the playhouse comes of age.
And she has to leave that playhouse behind, literally and figuratively, to face questions of loyalty and the reality of betrayal.
The author did not want to have Laila’s story rooted in a single country, so she relied on “a melting pot of details, current events, and personal experiences” to construct her novel.
“My country makes shameful lists: Worst countries for women. Worst countries for human rights. Worst countries for press freedom. It’s never at the top, but it’s often close—it’s the runner-up in a devil’s beauty pageant.”
Following the novel is a commentary by Cheryl Benard, who writes about her experience interviewing Benazir Bhutto and the similarly “fractured, fragile kaleidoscope of colors ready to shift at the slightest nudge of the wheel” that J.C. Carleson’s heroine finds herself facing.
But Laila’s adjustment to North American life, to life no-longer-as-a-princess, is rooted in the concrete. Readers can easily relate to her sense of dislocation.
From breakfast cereals to cups of coffee, Laila and her surviving family members’ experiences of culture shock are palpable. (And, sometimes, darkly humourous.)
“I’m angry with school lunches—every item on my tray date-stamped as edible for weeks or even months into the future. I had my first fruit cup today, all syrup and vacuum-sealed packaging. Is there nothing fresh in this country? Have they taken the farmers somewhere and shot them?”
And beneath her everyday struggle to adjust to a different kind of life, Laila must accept the fact that although she was raised to believe that her father was a king, that’s not how he was viewed by the world beyond her counry’s borders.
“A small part of me understands. How does a parent tell a child a truth like my father’s? And some of the lies were at least close to truths. Like royalty’s, my family’s status was passed down from father to son. Like a king’s, my father’s rule was absolute. The only real differences, I suppose, were that my father had no adoring empire and that his was an authority based more on bloodshed than birthright.”
The issues she faces certainly seem unique on the surface. “I remember gunfire, bodies, death. But I also remember my father as king. I still don’t know how much of my history is invented.”
But they are not as far removed from the questions about identity that her friends are experiencing in a different context. “I flush warm with guilt as I realize that I’ve thought of her as a paper doll of a friend, one-dimensional and picture-frame perfect. That she might also have things to escape never occurred to me.”
And even as Laila is remembering gunfire, in the passage above, she makes this observation, which could as well have been made by Raphaelle in Audacious:
“My grasp on reality has been so shaken that I can’t trust my memories.”
Raphaelle’s story is told in verse. It is solidly rooted in the present, but readers have the sense that there is something lurking.
Even while the family is adjusting to new surroundings, a new house and a new community and new schools and workplaces, something of what-came-before goes unaddressed.
It takes more than a hundred pages for this to be openly identifed, in a segment titled “Four Things I Never Say to My Sister”:
“There’s a dark black hole in the past
Somewhere in junior high.
A Cold place where nothing can escape
Don’t fall in
And if you do fall in, look for me
Because that something dark and cold
Won’t let me go….”
The details of the black hole are not disclosed for some time yet. Like Laila, Raphaelle has a legacy which she has not yet made sense of.
Given the heavily dramatized events of The Tyrant’s Daughter, readers will expect it to be a page-turner. And, it is that.
But Audacious moves with a steady pace as well. There are no death threats and no shadowed figures lurking in doorways. But there is a boy with parents who disapprove of Raphaelle (a boy from a country whose name might appear on those lists Laila refers to, with poor showings for women’s rights).
And there is the matter of Raphaelle’s behaving so audaciously (and explaining that is too spoilery to discuss, although it has nothing to do with the story’s romantic elements — and how refreshing is that).
“Something controversial, I say
(Without really knowing why),
I like to agitate, I add.”
Some of Raphaelle’s behaviour is simply for the sake of being contrary, true. But there is a political side to the decisions that she makes. Her actions are rooted in Raphaelle’s questions about identity, specifically her feminine identity and what roles she (and other girls and women) inhabit in society.
In many ways, Raphaelle’s audacity is not just an act of self-insistence but an open declaration of war on convention.
In her own small corner of the world, Raphaelle acts as the revolutionary, just as Laila does in another context and on another scale.
And there are gaps in Raphaelle’s family, too, although the holes are not bulletholes.
“We are the same, us four, that’s true
A family photograph full of holes
Secrets kept from one another
Hunger, fear, doubt, loneliness
And a missing brother.”
Gabrielle Prendergast’s language is unsentimental, and the everyday details in the verses balance the heavily emotional content.
Sometimes the mood is relayed as much by the shape and layout of the poems as by the words themselves.
(See “First Day of School”, in which readers can visually recognize the sense of isolation and increased connection.)
One of the most satisfying elements in each work, however, is the resolution. Or, more accurately, the lack of tidy resolutions.
Neither Laila nor Raphaelle age substantially in the course of these novels and at the ends of their stories they have even more questions than they had at the beginnings (or, at least, readers are more consciously aware of all the questions with which the characters are grappling).
Both J.C. Carleson and Gabrielle Prendergast insist upon an ending which remains largely undefined, which suits their heroines perfectly.
Being a teenager, with and without a dictator in the mix: it’s serious stuff.