Georgia Slade is fourteen years old. The tense moments between her busy, withdrawn psychiatrist father and her needy*, "emotional" mother have become more frequent, while all of her friends at school have become more and more interested in sex. Her acceptance into the prestigious Royal Toronto Ballet Academy is a relief: though she'll still be living at home, she'll be spending her days with like-minded people—people who use their bodies as tools, who carefully control themselves to create art.
But, she finds, the girls at the Academy are just as interested in and curious about sex as her former friends. And as her relationship with Roderick Allen**—her demanding ballet instructor—deepens, she begins to wonder if there's a whole aspect of ballet that's been invisible to her until now. But her confusion and curiosity—coupled with the focus of her instructor—may bring about the downfall of both of their careers.
I haven't gone looking for other reviews yet, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that some readers are going to get a bit of a shock from Various Positions. It's a ballet book, yes. Ballet is integral to Georgia's life, and ballet culture is integral to the story. However. It's much more about sex: about Georgia's realization that sexuality can bring power, and about her extremely confused sexual awakening. All of that is made pretty clear, I think, in the Prologue:
The words are gone now, as though scattered by my pulse. The moment comes back to me in pieces—the shadow of his nose next to my nose, the grainy darkness of his cheek. I can feel the memory quiver down my legs, my underwear rolling to my knees, catching my ankles in a coil of nylon. And then I flick my underwear at him. I send it straight into his lap.
If that makes you uncomfortable, believe me, there's more to come. And much of it will cause discomfort—it certainly made me cringe and squirm, shake my head and say Oh, no. Nonononono. at moments—because it's supposed to be uncomfortable. Georgia is a girl who lives mostly in her own head, who isn't able to turn to either of her parents with questions, and who doesn't strongly connect with other people very often. So she's got this secret relationship with her adult ballet instructor, she's got what she observes between other people, she's got the internet, and she's got her own fantasies. It's kind of a recipe for disaster.
You: "Okay, OKAY. More with the sex, less with the ballet. I get it. How is the book?"
It's beautifully written. That should already be apparent from the excerpt above. But it's not just in the way that Schabas strings her words together. It's in the depth of emotion, and in Schabas' complete honesty. Georgia is a sharp observer—which is fitting in a book so full of cruel truths—but she doesn't always understand what she observes; she's extremely self-aware, but doesn't always understand her own feelings; she's very composed on the surface, but her insides are a mass of confusion. She's a difficult—for herself, those who know her, and those of us in the audience—mixture of mature and immature, understanding and confusion.
She holds most people at arms' length—in her head, she always refers to her best friend as 'Sixty' rather than by her real name—but no one, even Georgia, seems to be aware of that. Despite that, though, while the other characters are all secondary—yes, even Roderick Allen—to Georgia's story, and while we only ever hear her descriptions of them, they all feel just as real as she does.
It's not going to be for everyone. Not at all. And it's certainly not the first book I'd reach for when asked for a 'ballet book'. But it is, in its own contradictory way, quite gorgeous.
*As Georgia sees her, at least at first.
**All the way through the book, I kept wondering why, A) his name was so familiar, and B) I wanted it to be spelled with a 'y'. I just Googled it, and it turns out I'm not bananas: Roderick Alleyn is the detective in Ngaio Marsh's mystery novels.
Book source: ILLed through my library.