– by Julianne de Souza
Hannah’s life is a mess. Her older sister, Katie, was killed one year ago in a car crash that was possibly caused by her father, her incompetent mother has barely spoken since the crash, and she has no friends at school (the eccentric school counsellor doesn’t count). Despite all this, Claire Zorn’s The Protected avoids being bogged down by its heavy subject matter and instead is a hopeful and funny story about trust, coming to terms with grief, and navigating the hardships of high school.
The story opens as the one-year anniversary of the car crash that killed Katie, as well as the trial to determine which driver was guilty, approaches. Hannah’s mother is depressed and her father maintains a falsely cheery façade that is at risk of crumbling any second. Hannah is reclusive and friendless; however, this is an improvement from the life that she lived prior to her sister’s death. Through a series of flashbacks that are interspersed among the present plot, the audience learns about Hannah’s difficult past as a victim of high school bullying, worsened by the fact that her best friend and sister abandoned her.
The Protected follows Hannah’s journey as the aftermath of Katie’s death allows her to mature and shed her concerns about fitting in with the ‘cool’ kids. She begins to know her sister better by reflecting on their memories together and by listening to her favourite music. She accepts the looming possibility of her parents’ divorce and the fact that her family will never be the same again. She also befriends a mischievous and goofy classmate, Josh, who has issues of his own but embraces life with a carefree and adventurous passion that intrigues Hannah.
The Protected has many strengths. Hannah’s narrative voice is relatable and precocious in its wit and honesty; she receives the sympathy bestowed upon her by others with a dry, deadpan outlook. The novel is peppered with pop cultural references, such as Instagram, Alexa Chung, and Arctic Monkeys, which make it incredibly accessible to its target young adult audience. However, I believe that the most engaging and thought-provoking aspect of the story is the complexity of Hannah and Katie’s relationship. The sisters were never close and the various reasons behind this become evident through Hannah’s flashbacks. Katie is portrayed as a frustrating, selfish but intriguing character who prioritises her popularity over her sister. Instead of coming to Hannah’s aid when she is being publicly bullied, Katie repeatedly chooses to keep her distance in fear of being associated with her ‘loser’ of a sister.
However, there are tender moments between the sisters that hint at a softer, less superficial side of Katie. Prime examples are the scenes in which she attempts to help Hannah achieve her dream of ‘fitting in’ by advising her to care less about what other people think, and her hurt feelings when it is implied that she is the dumb, ‘slutty’ sibling in contrast to shy, brainy Hannah.
There are certain aspects of The Protected that run the risk of being stereotypical. The dichotomy between the introverted, intelligent sibling and the popular, outgoing sibling is a common one. I also found the recurring trope of the cute, popular boy randomly taking interest in a reclusive, lonely girl difficult to believe. Most of all, the majority of the characters are incredibly frustrating. However, I believe that the frustration that the characters inspire is indicative of Zorn’s masterful ability to create relatable and complex characters. The Protected is a poignant and witty book that tackles heartbreaking issues while maintaining a wonderful sense of humour and hope.