Tradition By Brendan Kiely
I don’t make it a habit to get truly worked up over a book. I barely have enough energy to read at the moment let alone let the book affect my emotions.
But I finished a book on Sunday last week and I’m still angry about it and only getting angrier. The last time I was this annoyed over a book was the Twilight series and that was only because of the hype and maybe this is the same. If it were just another new author I probably wouldn’t have given it much credence and carried on with my life. But this author is a New York Times Bestseller with multiple awards under his name.
So this is my first book rant.
Last week I read Tradition by Brendan Kiely.
The story takes place at Fullbrook Academy, a hotbed of rich white male privilege. Kiely describes it as “A boy’s school that lets girls in.”
Our two protagonists are Jules, a senior who stands out as the social activist and justice warrior for her school, and Jamie, a poor scholarship student who hopes his hockey skills will redeem his past and allow him a bright future.
The values at Fullbrook are that money talks, men are in charge, sports are key and tradition rules.
Jamie is taken in by the popular crowd but is soon made aware that his values do not match those of the Academy.
At a party Jules is sexually assaulted by her drunk ex- boyfriend but her attempts at retribution are met with silence and cover up.
I won’t give away the ending… basically because there wasn’t one.
I’ll start with the characters.
Jules is an activist. That is all she is plain and simple. She was one of the popular kids and ever since she broke up with her ex (no explanation as to why) she’s ostracized from the cool gang.
Other than a brief mention of her love of photography and desire to get out of Fullbrook, we know nothing else about her. She is a confrontational activist and that is her entire persona. Her every move is a designed to be a protest and all she does is shove her morality down people’s throats.
We first meet her handing out flyers for woman’s health centre which include sexual health and safe sex. She gets removed by irate teachers immediately.
Then she starts a Tampon normalisation campaign which peters out almost immediately when she doesn’t get the reaction she craves. She’s a brazen militant activist which does not engender much sympathy for her character, especially since that is ALL we ever hear about her.
Kiely doesn’t tell us anything about her home-life or why she chose senior year to break with tradition or what she was like before. Nothing. Her entire character is one sided and bland.
Even her reaction after she was assaulted is muted and downplayed.
What isn’t downplayed?
Jamie. Our newest recruit who struggles with wanting to do the right thing. His tragic back story gives insight into his churning emotions, his dedication to his sport and his unwillingness to fail his family.
We see his interactions with his team mates and how he tries to compromise on his values to fit in but never seems to get there. His reaction to finding out his ‘friend’ was raped is highlighted and we get full details over how he was torn between doing the right thing and standing by tradition.
Jamie’s character is fully developed and you genuinely feel for him at the end.
Wait… he wasn’t the one who was attacked and isn’t this book supposed to be about rape culture and toxic masculinity?
“Tradition isn’t so much a book as it is an invitation and a promise. An invitation to stand up for ourselves and for what’s right, and a promise that if we stand, we won’t do so alone. Shaun David Hutchinson.”
Uh. Nope. Jules tried to stand up for herself but was shot down by the school who refused to actually do anything and her peers who call her crazy. She was definitely standing alone.
Her only allies are Aileen who was assaulted in her first year and went on to be the school slut as protest, openly gay friend Javi and new kid Jamie.
So our primary female ‘lead’ is an activist who (numerous times) swears off men and wants social change, and our secondary female is ‘damaged’.
Kiely has managed to take the ideals of the virgin and the whore and rewrite them for the 21st century. Do we have any other women in this story who could possibly step outside those roles?
The female teacher that Jules goes to see isn’t there because she’s at home taking care of her sick son- like all women should be.
What about the rest of the females at school, surely we have well-rounded females there?
No. The rest are only portrayed as bitchy one sided socialites whose only interactions with the basic storyline are:
1) Making out with the boys
2) Teaching the younger girls how to give a blow job
3) Dancing for the boys
Girls have no scenes in which they are ‘friends’ hanging out or having an identity separate from the boys. They are shouted down in class and only named if they are a love interest of someone else.
This book fails the Bechdel test on every page.
What it does do is highlight and underscore how guys feel about this, especially Jamie and Javi.
This book is the quintessential “Not every guy” and by taking away the emphasis on Jules and her reaction, they are making it about every guy.
Even Aileen whose backstory involves quite a traumatic event is only really interpreted through the eyes of the guys. She was attacked and then spent the next few years sleeping her way through the freshmen as some sort of revenge. Jamie finds out and is upset as the rest of his teammates scratching her name on walls and calling her names.
So he threatens a teammate and spends two scenes dealing with the graffiti about her.
We do not see Aileen’s reaction, her feelings or anything else. Her entire storyline is told through someone else’s eyes. She has no value except to point out that Jamie is not like those other guys.
There is another subplot about openly gay Javi who just wants the right to kiss a boy in front of the whole school. The school is homophobic and when Javi does get his guy, their romantic tryst is recorded and passed around the school causing his boyfriend to back off.
Although why he does this is unclear. We are never told of any bullying, overt or otherwise. He isn’t noticeably harassed or victimised and, eventually, his boyfriend changes his mind and kisses him in public.
And nothing happens.
Javi spends almost two pages bemoaning the homophobia at the school and yet we never see any evidence of this and when Javi does get his chance to kiss and hold his boyfriend in front of his classmates there are no discernible repercussions.
It’s a sub plot about a genuine problem at schools but is almost made to seem like an imagined problem which is ignored and ‘solved’ without becoming a centre point, a talking point or even much of an issue.
In fact because it is two male characters they seem to get away with it and the whole issue becomes nothing more than a null detraction from what is supposed to be the main plot line.
As for the ending.
It is the most unsatisfactory ending I’ve ever read.
At the senior dance, Aileen wears the dress she was assaulted in during the first year. No discernible reaction other than a teacher saying it’s inappropriate.
Javi arrives with Jamie as his ‘date’. From a massively homophobic school there is no reaction whatsoever.
Jamie and Jules set a fire in the school grounds that spells out “No”. Students and teachers watch for a bit and then go back to dancing.
Jamie and Jules are expelled.
And THAT’S IT.
The guy who assaulted Jules wasn’t punished as his father swept in and used money to cover it up. Jamie loses his scholarship for doing the right thing. Jules, like so many girls before her, has to leave.
And the traditions of Fullbrook go on.
There was a throw-away line about Javi starting some sort of ‘no consent’ campaign but other than that nothing. No repercussions. No aftermath. No changes.
In reviews I’ve seen this book as called ‘timely’, ‘brave’ and ‘hopeful’ and that is what I find so annoying.
I felt that the book was pointing out that if you’re not a rich white guy then you have very little chance of being heard and valued in our society; and, no matter what you do, that won’t change.
This book was written at the time of the #metoo campaign, Times Up and amidst the Weinstein allegations. So in a way it is timely.
It is also quite pointed that it’s written by a male, with the male lead being fleshed out, the female lead being pigeonholed and stereotyped and the much maligned tradition was actually upheld all along.
To me, which is why I’m angry, this is another guy trying to cash in on recent trends by talking about rape culture from the point of view of a man. It’s not brave, it’s self-serving. It’s not hopeful, it’s about sustaining the status quo.
Brendan Kiely is telling us that not all guys are like this and he’s one of the good ones, able to write a whole book about the topic. A book in which women have no value other than to be reason a man does the right thing.
As far as I’m concerned this book only explores toxic masculinity in the sense that it quite honestly reads like fiction written by “The nice guy”, ignoring its own subconscious bias.