BOOK REVIEW: Pointe, Claw by Amber J. Keyser
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
Young Adult / Magic Realism
Jessie Vale dances in an elite ballet program. She has to be perfect to land a spot with the professional company. When Jessie is cast in an animalistic avant-garde production, her careful composure cracks wide open. Nothing has felt more dangerous.
Dawn McCormick’s world is full of holes. She wakes in strange places, bruised, battered, and unable to speak. The doctors are out of ideas. No one knows what to do with a girl like this.
These childhood friends are both running out of time. Jessie has one shot at her ballet dream. Dawn’s blackouts are getting worse. At every turn, they crash into the many ways girls are watched, judged, used, and discarded.
Should they play it safe or go feral? The answer lies in the forest with a bear in a cage.
There are many things to deconstruct about this book, if not a whole lot when it comes to plot.
As we join our main characters, Dawn is grumpy, uncommunicative, tends towards a much more masculine fashion sense than her mother cares for, and goes missing for large chunks of time.
At twelve, she found me three miles from home, asleep in a dog kennel with a mastiff. At thirteen, I had to call from a bus station in the next town over. At fifteen, I woke up in a broken-down farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. When she came to get me, my mother had to step over meth heads in her pristine heels. Afterwards she took me to the hospital for a rape test.
Jessie is competing for a professional position in an industry that has always been seen by outsiders as elegant and beautiful, but which is very different when you get a little closer.
I can catalog my body’s shortcomings in detail. Too tall. Slightly too much ass. Feet that need more curve. Legs that need a few more millimeters of hypertension. It’s not that I hate my body. I don’t. But I know the way it deviates from the requirements of ballet. Training and hard work are wasted if skeleton and sinew don’t meet specifications. Or at least come close.
They’re both facing pressures and being judged for how they don’t live up to society’s expectations of what they should be and, just as the cracks are threatening to consume their respective lives, they get back in touch after eight years of distance.
Dawn faces doctor after doctor, each one waving away the symptoms she’s experiencing, the changes she’s clearly going through, as her mother and step-father try and get her under control, make her a more “palatable” teenage girl.
Dr. Cresswell clears his throat.
“You know,” he says, leaning toward my mother. “Difficult menstruation can explain all her complaints.”
My mother stiffens. “Having been a menstruator now for many years, I beg to differ.” He dips his chin in deference to her tampon expertise, but we both know he doesn’t mean it.
And Jessie is being encouraged to push boundaries, to act in a way that is less accepted by society, and more primal and instinctive.
“Can you do it,” he asks, his accent stronger, “like an animal?”
Someone stifles a snort. Probably Nita. But I am frozen in place by the intensity of his voice. It feels like his hands are still on me.
“I… I don’t know what you mean.”
He paces in front of me. “As if your limbs are furred, your claws sharp, and your stomach empty. Can you do that?” he shouts.
The writing here is beautiful and raw and worth making note of, and this reader genuinely got caught up in the story of these two girls, but there were a couple of things that didn’t sit quite right.
One of the biggest things that bothered me, but is perhaps less likely to bother the target age group simply because of when they were born, was just how many of the ballet plot points seemed to be almost directly lifted from the movie Center Stage, which was released in 2000.
1 – A limited number of places that they’re all competing for.
Center Stage: At best, three boys and three girls will be chosen to join the company from the program. The comment is also made that around twelve students from all over the world will chosen to enter the program.
Pointe, Claw: Two students will be selected from the bunch of thirteen. It is suggested right from the start that this group of thirteen is already refined.
2 – There is an end of term/year workshop/showcase event put on by each company.
Center Stage: Workshop. The artistic director of the company, Jonathan, is overseeing a performance in which a majority of the students will dance. The principal male dancer for the company, Cooper, is choreographing his own performance, for which three of the students are selected.
Pointe, Claw: Showcase. The artistic director of the company, Eduardo Cortez, is overseeing a performance in which a majority of the students will dance. The principal male dancer for the company, Vadim Ivanov, is choreographing his own performance, for which three of the students are selected.
3 – This may be a tad pedantic, but even the names of the female principal dancers sound the same!
Center Stage: Kathlene
Pointe, Claw: Selene
4 – The principal dancer is set to revolutionise ballet.
Center Stage: Cooper is doing a new type of ballet that isn’t really ballet.
Pointe, Claw: Vadim is doing a new type of ballet that isn’t really ballet.
There were a couple more likenesses that cannot be discussed here, as they are sure to spoil things for those wanting to read this book. Of course, some of these similarities would be true of any story set in the world of ballet but, though it had been years since watching Center Stage, I couldn’t keep my mind from returning to that plot again and again. Perhaps readers who were not yet born or were only a few years old at the release of that movie will not feel these similarities so strongly.
All in all, this book is full of gorgeous and engrossing writing, and explores the different ways in which girls coming of age and figuring out where they want to go in their lives and who they want to be might be perceived by the rest of the world as less than ideal, as women continue to fight to get away from the gender stereotypes and restrictions from the past. Unfortunately the ending did peter out a little, but not enough to negate the vicious beauty of the prose.
The physicality of the book is also stunning, with a quote and decoration on the book beneath the dust jacket which is gorgeous and eye-catching in its own right.
About the Author: