Disclaimers front and foremost: the author of The Devil’s Mixtape is a friend of mine. I’m a huge fan of Mary Borsellino’s work, and of Mary herself. She has a habit of introducing me to new ways of looking at the world which are like a bucket of ice water to the face. Frequently unexpected, but ultimately refreshing and, by god, it makes you wake up and look at things. As I’m a fond of saying, just because I’m biased, it doesn’t mean I’m wrong.
Mary wrote the five-book The Wolf House vampire series, which I love. It’s full of horror, cruelty, compassion, love, art and rock music. The Devil’s Mixtape is her newest book, and it has all the power, passion, razorblade insights and ice-water dousing of her vampire novel, condensed into a single volume. Mary Borsellino does not choose safe, easy subjects – or protagonists – but she grabs everything in two fists and propels you to places you never saw coming. The other writer who most recently made me feel like this was Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games trilogy
The Devil’s Mixtape has three interwoven stories, all about fierce women who do not even pretend to play nice. The very first chapter throws you right into the deep end with letters from a girl named Ella Vrenna. Ella once led a shooting spree at an American high school, and died at the end of it. She’s in Hell, writing letters to her little sister, now a grown woman and a rock star.
The second thread of stories follows Sally, a part aboriginal teenager, travelling across Australia with Amy, who isn’t really a girl. The third thread is told in excerpts from a book, in which rock journalist Charlotte interviews the band HUSH on the road. The members of the band are all linked, in some way, to the Ella, Sally and Amy.
Those are the bare bones of it, but the layers of storytelling and theme are so rich, deep and varied that I can’t begin to cover them all. But I’m going to give it a shot.
There’s a lot in here about identity. Ella is no longer her whole self but reduced to ‘ellavrenna’, her full name always spoken in a breath, made a monster by a monstrous act and losing the rest of who she was in the process. Even in the way she signs her letters, Ella is always confined, but always changing.
Identity features in lots of other ways too. The sainted Stacey, one of the school shooting victims, the other side of Ella’s coin, is also remembered more as an icon than as a person.
People you know by one name in one thread are actually going by different names in other parts of the story. Where some people are building an image or identity for themselves with careful iconography, others, like Cherry from HUSH, are using Twitter to break down the icon, communicate with the fans and become more real than the rock idol. Sometimes having more than one name is a way of showing that there is more than one truth about who you are. Even Charlotte turns out to have a secret identity.
The Devil’s Mixtape is full of families and siblings torn apart by sickness, violence and death; and full of people forging new families for themselves in the aftermath. The characters are frayed, sometimes broken. They are all terribly flawed and tragically human – even (or especially) the monsters.
God and the Devil are mentioned a lot in this book. Hell, too, since that is where Ella resides, along with a lot of other people who haven’t done things half so evil as she has. But I don’t see God here really as a religious God. This god seems a personification of a conformist society, intolerant of difference: if you’re queer and won’t pretend not to be; if you’re a girl and won’t be sweet and pliable; if you fail to conform (and if you’re angry that everyone wants you to) then this God will send you to hell.
A key element of this notion is the story of the wolf and the dog, told in the early parts of the book, ending with the moral “It is better to be hungry and tired and free than to be fat and sleek and at a master’s mercy’. God will put a collar on you, so perhaps it is better to be damned but free. But being damned is not the same as being without compassion or love. The book is full of people who choose damnation selflessly, protecting others.
The Devil’s Mixtape is about refusing to conform by hiding who you are; but also about trying to find a place to belong, where you can be accepted as your whole self. It’s passionate, defiant and fierce. It’s also full of stories, parables and fables about wolves and fierce women and love. It’s full of people who are strong and vocal. They’re not always nice, but they are always, like the wolf, free.
Themes aside, the writing itself is superb. It switches from voice to voice cleanly. Ella’s letters to Tash differ in tone and style from Sally’s present-tense narrative, which contrasts with Amy’s past-tense narration even though they share a timeline. Charlotte’s use of reporting alongside verbatim interviews with the band give another tone again. This technique keeps the large cast of characters airborne and distinct and provides texture and momentum.
Then there are the turns of phrase, the unexpected observations and the sudden insights that make Mary one of my favourite writers. On this second read-through (I read one of the later drafts a few months ago) I kept finding more interlinking themes, phrases and ideas that weave the three threads together. It’s an intricate, tightly woven story that is as rewarding in rereads as the first gripping time.
The Devil’s Mixtape is part horror story, part declaration of love for non-conformists, especially those who embrace being outside the norm. It’s passionate, smart, powerful and at times incredibly beautiful.
Get The Devil’s Mixtape e-book, published by Omnium Gatherum, from Amazon.com. It’s only $3.99 and it may be one of the most disturbing and compassionate books you read. It’s like a bucket of ice water to the face; and that’s not at all a bad thing.
NEW: Just released on Amazon! The Devil’s Mixtape paperback