Gangland, girls and glory: 'Anatomy of a Girl Gang' searches for a sense of belonging

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There's blood on the streets

Ashley Little’s Anatomy of a Girl Gang is like an after-school special gone horribly awry -- and that’s a good thing.

The novel follows the short, eventful, often frightening existence of a Downtown East Side (DTES) Vancouver gang called the Black Roses. The Roses are five teenage girls: Mac, originator of the gang and the eldest among them; Mercy, the admitted "Punjabi Princess" with an aptitude for theft; Kayos, a teenage mom whose life of privilege is darker than she lets on; Sly Girl, a struggling-to-stay-clean crack addict fleeing the violence and poverty of her First Nations reserve; and Z, a diminutive anti-establishment graffiti artist who speaks and thinks only in tags.

The story begins with Mac and Mercy wanting to distance themselves from another gang, the Vipers --gangsters who want to act like pimps, treating the girls like shit -- deciding they’d had enough of living beneath the thumbs of others. They set up shop in a DTES flat and start selling drugs to make ends meet, to build their nest egg for that dream condo in the sky that will take them out of the DTES once and for all. But two girls aren’t a gang; they need extra muscle on the streets, they need someone with a finger on the erratic pulse of the substance underground, and they need their name spread far and wide.

Enter Kayos, Sly Girl and Z.

What unfolds is a tragic family drama (structurally inspired to some degree, according to the author, by Romeo & Juliet) as we learn both what each girl is escaping from -- abuse, neglect, violence or just good old-fashioned oppressive parenting -- and the lengths to which they are willing to go in order to carve their gang’s name out of blood and concrete.

The girls begin the Black Roses with the best of intentions: to honour and respect one another, to not get into it with other gangs in the area, to stay clean from drugs, keep out of trouble and always act in the best interests of the group.

In spite of its gangland aesthetic, the story is made relatable through Little’s strong-yet-streamlined characters and their clear motivations -- at its core the novel is about finding a niche, a sense of belonging and building a family. But best intentions only go so far when the surrounding environment all too often resorts to a kill-or-be-killed frame of mind.

Gradually, cracks appear in their group dynamic -- Mac falling in love with Z and Mercy feeling hurt that she didn’t know; Kayos killing a rival gang member and Sly Girl struggling to process it without falling back to using -- and the strain of five disparate, quick-to-boil girls forced far too quickly into adulthood is too much the gang to survive.

And when shit does go wrong, it goes wrong spectacularly fucking fast -- so fast you’ll feel like you’ve been slapped in the face. And I promise you’ll never look at a curling iron the same way again.

The novel is written as a series of testimonials. Each chapter is from the point-of-view of another member of the gang, written in their own voice: Mac’s chapters have an authoritarian vibe to them, desperate as she is to get that wealth and influence she knows she deserves; Mercy is intelligent and self-aware; Kayos is at odds with her privileged yet abusive past, and sometimes finds herself questioning where she went off the rails; Sly Girl’s chapters are filled with blunt acknowledgement of the hardships she’s endured and a sometimes self-hating desire to rise above it all; and Z’s chapters are written in the broken language of tagging -- "i go out @ nyte, do my aRt, den go home & sleep & eat in da daytime when evrybudeez @ werk & skewl. itz aiight. 4 now. i don’t wanna B a product of my environment. i want my environment 2 B a product of me."

Every now and again, Little will also insert a chapter from Vancouver’s perspective, pulling the action out to a bird’s eye view of the city, looking down on the streets and the girls and the brutal life they’re leading through a loving, protective, and somewhat ambiguous lens.

These chapters are at first a bit difficult to parse when placed alongside the very down-to-earth realism and in-the-moment threat experienced in the chapters belonging to each member of the gang. However, as the novel progresses and the tragedies begin to stack up, the Vancouver chapters -- in how they anthropomorphize the streets and the glass and chrome of Vancouver’s skyscrapers, describing the city as if it were a cocoon failing to protect its most vulnerable contents -- take on a sorrowful tone, as if the city itself were a parent filled with regret for its citizens and their lost potential.

Despite the horrible shit the girls do to one another and those unfortunate enough to be pulled into their maelstrom, they remain sympathetic throughout. They’re fighting to showcase their strength and agency, which in each of their cases is something that life and circumstances outside of the gang have taken from them. But they aren’t needless aggressors -- they react, they don’t act out.

Would any of the Black Roses have killed without provocation? It’s possible, sure, but given the guttural reaction they have to every life taken, accidentally or otherwise, and how quickly the stress resulting from their actions causes them to splinter and move further away from one another, it’s clear they don’t ever lose whatever tenuous grip they have on their humanity.

The Black Roses aren’t sociopaths. They’re kids who don’t know how to process the amazing amount of shit they’ve lived through, and they know -- or think they know -- that their only two options are that they fight and they fight real fucking hard, or they simply curl up into a ball and wait for death.

As the novel nears its end, the sense that they are all of them walking a high wire stretched too tight across a crevasse is almost overwhelming; as a reader I found myself thinking I was watching someone pull a load-bearing piece from the base of a card tower each and every chapter, just waiting for that one, that innocuous Ace of Spades that when pulled would knock everything over. And damn it, the second they mentioned celebrating Mac’s 18th birthday, all I could think to myself was "tried as an adult."

Even knowing to some degree how bad things were inevitably going to get, the emotional impact of the novel’s final chapters wasn’t diminished at all. While I was grateful for even the smallest shred of hope offered by the story’s end, Anatomy of a Girl Gang is a heartbreaking read, a must for high schools across the continent and just too goddamn real for comfort.

And again, that’s a good thing.

Andrew Wilmot is a freelance writer, editor, publisher, artist, musician, film geek, book nerd and all points in between. He blogs about books at backlisted.

This review originally appears on backlisted and is reprinted with permission.

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