In-your-face YA: Clean by Juno Dawson
Clean is a sharp and in-your-face young adult novel about addiction, recovery, and seeing everyone has different problems. Lexi Volkov is an heiress and socialite whose dad owns a chain of hotels. When she overdoses aged seventeen, she finds herself forced into an expensive rehab facility by her older brother, and thinks things can’t get any worse. She’s drawn into knowing more about the others in the facility, unravelling their problems along with her own, but can she really change? Can any of them?
Dawson has written the kind of hard-hitting and abrasive YA novel that needs to exist and is difficult to put down. Lexi is obnoxious at times—insulting and judging people in her head and more openly—and makes a great flawed central character, someone who doesn’t want to admit their addition or the ways in which their life has become centred around it. Most of the characters come from money and privileged, meaning the book also has a level of seeing how the elite live, whilst showing problems that the characters must admit don’t care about wealth or position.
Setting the novel predominantly in a rehab centre for under 24s means that it covers a variety of kinds of addiction and ways in which mental health affect people particularly when young, but also that it can have witty and harsh banter and modern pop culture references mixed in. Lexi is always ready to mock current hipster and celebrity culture even though she’s a part of it, and it’s a novel that loves as well as hates London for what it can offer. There’s plenty of seriousness and darkness in the novel—from death, drugs, and sex to what happens when all the options seem to be failing someone with mental health problems—but also fantastic characters and a sense of hope that people can pick themselves up from their lowest depths.
Clean doesn’t pull any punches. It deals with difficult topics—drug, alcohol, and sex addiction, anorexia and binge eating, and OCD are among some of the major ones—and shows another side to the life of the rich and privileged. Dawson shows how young adult novels don’t need to shy away from gritty topics that can’t always be neatly fixed. At the same time, she situates the book firmly in the contemporary world, in a recognisable London and with a modern sense of image versus reality engendered by the internet and social media. This is YA fiction being loud and bold.