The ones who just don't fit

10th March 2006 at 00:00
Hilary Wilce picks over autobiographical and fictional treatments of the modern young girl's curse

A Shape of my Own By Grace Bowman Viking pound;14.99

Eating Myself By Candida Crewe Bloomsbury pound;12.99

Skin By AM Vrettos Egmont Press pound;5.99

Is there a woman in the western world who has a normal relationship with food? Who doesn't count calories, or cut out wheat and dairy products, or go on a new year detox?

Not according to these writers on anorexia, who see eating disorders as a distorted extension of widespread behaviour. As Grace Bowman writes: "It is just better to be lighter. I am sure many people feel this. You feel so much clearer, as if nothing weighs you down."

Her account of her years with anorexia, A Shape of my Own, makes surprisingly compelling reading, mainly because of the way she brings a true writer's skill to what can't help but be a claustrophobic subject. Her shifting voice - from drama to prose; from first to third person; from cool-headed researcher to distraught narrator - helps to lift the veil on the confusing, obsessive, introverted world of the adolescent anorexic.

The young Grace is a clever, popular, pretty girl with loving parents who, at the age of 18 decides to starve herself: "in a moment, she has been sucked into a different channel of thinking". Her weight plunges to 5st 7lb. She doesn't take up her university place. She sits in the offices of psychiatrists, ignoring what they say while she calculates calories in her head. When she is offered a place at Cambridge she eats just enough to make sure she can take it up. "My resolution was to end my eating disorder. Just like that. At five and a half stone I had simply changed my mind."

But being cured on the outside does not mean you are all right underneath, and Grace's university years are blurry with hidden secrets, relapses about food, and difficulties with friendships. Only in her mid-twenties, with the help of a loving boyfriend and attentive therapist, is she truly able to move on, and even then she does not really discover what her anorexia was all about, other than a need to escape from herself. "I needed a place within myself and I found it through illness. I found a place to hide. An act of defence turned into one of attack on myself."

This book is valuable for its deep honesty about a widespread condition.

Grace Bowman strips herself bare to show you all her pride, perfectionism and self-obsession, as well as her pain and raw vulnerability.

The same isn't true of Candida Crewe's Eating Myself which, although a similar if less extreme saga of abnormal eating, is diluted with lots of colourful material about her family and travels. Her father was the eccentric, wheelchair-bound writer and restaurant critic, Quentin Crewe, and both her parents married three times, so there are plenty of family stories to tell, and the book romps along via London, France and Ireland to end in happy domesticity in Oxford.

On the way our author is both thin and fat and constantly struggling with food, following overeating by fasting although she stops short of vomiting.

"I am not an anorexic, I am not a bulimic, I am not a compulsive over-eater. Most of the time I have my stupid, beautiful system in place.

It makes me sad. It makes me happy. But in a way I'm eating myself."

Candida Crewe writes entertainingly about living in swathes of black to accommodate her sagging stomach and spreading thighs. Her mother and her half-sister, she writes, "speak highly of Zara and Top Shop and Toast, famous shops in which they find poetry and I have never been". But just as she is never entirely convincing as either an anorexic or a bulimic, so her book never quite grabs you in the guts in the way that Grace Bowman's obsessively focused narrative does.

Skin is a novel about eating disorders written for teenage readers. Or, at least, Donnie's sister's anorexia is one of many difficult things that the 14-year-old hero of this story has to deal with. The others include his father leaving home and his mother trying to hold herself together in the face of mounting family problems. Then there's the unsettling Amanda, about whom Donnie has fervent fantasies, and Chris and Dean, former friends who have morphed into relentless bullies. Life isn't any fun at all for Donnie, but he copes with it with an attractive, wry humour.

There are no great insights about anorexia here. In fact there is a faint feeling that this young author might have mugged up on textbook cases. But this is a vivid story about what anorexia seems like from the outside, and the destructive pall it casts over all who have to watch someone they love starve themselves to a skeleton. For Donnie's parents, it is a giant wedge that drives them further apart. For Donnie, who is close to his sister, it is a constant torment, as is being invisible to his distracted parents. "I am right here," he cries at the end. "LOOK AT ME! I disappeared so she could get better! I never asked you for anything! I disappeared and you didn't notice!I you have to see me now!"

But his own resilience carries him through. As he says at the end of this story: "This is the book of Donnie. And this is Chapter One."

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