In his latest novel, Alex Wheatle tackles the tragic realities and faults of the foster care system, highlighting the horrors and hardships many children endure.
Juggled from foster home to foster home, 14-year-old Naomi has come to think of them as “just someplace [she’ll] rest her bones for a week.” After reporting allegations against her foster father, Naomi’s social worker transfers her to live with the Goldings, a loving and supportive family with parents who truly care for Naomi. Despite her contentment with her new placement, however, some are not so accepting of a white girl in a black family. With these prejudices arising, Naomi has to contend with racial issues alongside all the other obstacles the system poses.
Home Girl, while harboring a critically important message, lacks the intrigue and execution necessary for a compelling read. Despite the book’s promises of a “fast-paced and tender, tragic, and full of courage” story, readers are left with a barebones plot, an unrelatable and relatively unlikable protagonist, and a barrel of mixed feelings.
The crux of this novel lies in exposing the grisly experiences of foster care, which it admittedly accomplishes quite well; yet, when it comes to plot, the book has hardly anything to offer in that not a whole lot occurs. And what does occur feels forced for the sake of plot progression. This, coupled with the book’s slow pacing, made for a lackluster and, at times, tedious read—exacerbated exponentially by Wheatle’s protagonist.
Armed with a tough outer shell protecting a vulnerable heart, Naomi is quite an outwardly abrasive character, and she wields her quips and caustic comments like a shield. Given her circumstances, it’s a sensible trait for her, yet it makes her a difficult character to relate to, especially when she treats people with cruelty who aren’t deserving of such behavior. For instance, Naomi treats one of her foster mothers abhorrently and unwarrantedly, for this woman scarcely did anything wrong except enforce a healthy diet/lifestyle and give unwanted advice. While Naomi’s reaction is understandable to some extent, it largely comes across as inflated and unnecessarily callous.
However, she’s not without a sensitive side, for at the heart of her, she’s a heartbroken character who desperately longs for permanence and companionship. Even at the cost of her own wants and beliefs. To preserve her friendships, namely with Kim, Naomi obeys almost every command and shred of ill-advice Kim tells her. It’s a frustrating aspect for readers, watching as she alters her life on someone else’s whim, yet it’s also an equally sad one. And it’s this element, this more unguarded side of Naomi, that endears her and ultimately thawed my disposition some.
Aside from the book’s plot and protagonist, the writing style takes quite a bit of getting used to, rife with words such as “cadazy” and “hot-toed” and “sistren.” While this adds a unique voice to the characters, it just didn’t appeal to me as a reader, and I found myself getting tripped up on some of the wording at times.
Though not the book for me, readers looking for a strong protagonist and a good message will find a home within its pages.