A coming-of-age tale to make you cry, laugh, and believe in humanity again.
TW: mention of domestic violence, abuse, and sexual exploitation of minors
After the success of her 2016 debut novel, Nina Is Not Okay, Iranian-born British comedian Shappi Khorsandi is back with a new contemporary YA title about the life of a beautiful but naïve teenager in a money-hungry world.
Kissing Emma is based on the life of Lady Emma Hamilton, a model and dancer who became the mistress of the British naval hero Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson at the end of the 18th century. This very modern retelling is set in present-day London and pays homage to a woman whose story has all but been left out of the British history books.
It follows Emma, a young girl born into a family touched by poverty and domestic violence whose single mum just can’t seem to land on her feet. Emma’s reality of life in her nan’s front room is worlds away from her dreams of glamour and recognition. As she battles through life fending off bullies, rumours, self-doubt, and awful boys, she can’t always see the traps ahead of her before stumbling into them.
This is the type of book that makes reading a pure pleasure. That is, the type of book you can’t wait to get back to reading after you finally, reluctantly, put it down for the night. Bursting with inner-strength that she can’t recognise, resilience, and kindness, Emma is such an endearing character that she almost feels like family.
Reading along as Emma’s life goes from bad to worse, you might find your stomach clenched with knots. Though she makes some terrible decisions, it’s difficult to feel irritated with her because of her age and unfortunate, uncontrollable circumstances. Khorsandi’s portrayal of a teenage girl trying to break free from the life she’s given is painfully real; many teens might be swayed by predators as easily as Emma is.
The few rays of sunshine in Emma’s life come in the form of spectacular characters, though there are also plenty of terrible figures who come in and out of her story too. The majority of the male characters are particularly despicable and difficult to read, let alone empathise with. The diversity of the cast also means that young readers from a range of backgrounds can see themselves in this book, which is wonderful.
The troubling themes of domestic violence and abusive relationships, cycles of poverty, bullying, and young girls being sexually exploited do make the book uncomfortable at times. But seeing Emma’s growth and transformation throughout the novel is worth all the discomfort. The exploration of these difficult concepts is also, sadly, something we need in literature, particularly when many target readers are struggling with these very issues.
Kissing Emma will make you cry, laugh, and sit at the edge of your seat with hunched shoulders. It will make you question why the world is so horrible. But through Emma’s unshakeable resilience and the compassion of a few star figures in her life, it may also restore your faith in humanity.
Reviewed by Vanessa Elle
Distributed by: Hachette Australia
Released: 14 September 2021