Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rare, disturbing glimpse into cyberbullying world

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IT may be a work of fiction, yet, sadly, it's a story that could have been culled from the pages of almost any newspaper.

A topic all too often in the news these days, cyberbullying is at the heart of American author Kimberly McCreight's first novel, part psychological thriller, part mystery and part coming-of-age story.

McCreight includes enough well-placed plot twists -- not all of them unpredictable -- to keep the story moving at a nice pace, and she will keep most readers guessing until the last moment.

Reconstructing Amelia begins with lawyer Kate Baron being called unexpectedly to her 15-year-old daughter Amelia's private school in Brooklyn, where she is told that Amelia appears to have jumped to her death off the roof.

Kate refuses to accept the verdict of suicide -- no one would have pegged smart, well-adjusted Amelia as suicidal -- even before she receives the anonymous text telling Kate simply, "She didn't jump."

McCreight employs both Kate and Amelia as narrators, switching deftly between Kate's present-day investigation and Amelia's last few weeks.

As Kate attempts to reconstruct her daughter's life before her death, she is overwhelmed by the countless text and Facebook entries on Amelia's phone and computer.

"It was too much. There were so very many places where terrible things about my daughter's life could be tucked."

In this age of smart phones, blogs and all manner of social media, bullying no longer requires a face-to-face meeting by the school bike racks. Just press a button and slanderous texts or compromising photos of a classmate can be shared with virtually anyone and everyone. In seconds.

Canadians will remember Amanda Todd, the B.C. teen who committed suicide in October 2012, partially as a result of online bullying. But there have been a reported 41 suicides with a cyberbullying link in North America, Australia and the United Kingdom over the last 10 years.

Reconstructing Amelia provides a rare and disturbing glimpse inside the insular and often cruel world of the average teenager. Take this exchange between Amelia and one of her tormenters:

"Why do you hate me so much?... Tell me what I'm doing and I'll try to stop, I swear." Zadie's eyes thinned to blue gashes as she pushed her face into mine.

"Can you stop being you?... I mean, if you can, that would be awesome. Otherwise, I guess we'll have to stick to me hating you."

There is occasional over-the-top drama and some uninspired token characters oddly reminiscent of the '80s teen movie The Breakfast Club -- the tough, chain-smoking chick who wears an army jacket (sure signs of delinquency), a pretty and delicate-seeming foul-mouthed ballerina, to name a few. But McCreight, a lawyer turned writer, can be forgiven.

Amelia and her best friend Sylvia, at least, come off as the real deal, and their interaction, right down to their vocabulary, is pretty spot on.

This timely novel should resonate deeply with teenagers and parents, and, hopefully, start a conversation.

Lindsay McKnight works in the arts in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 J9

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