I’ve long held the opinion that Hannah Moskowitz is, if not the best writer in YA, then certainly the most criminally underrated. With a keen eye for character quirks and an unflinching dedication to unmasking the difficulties of adolescence, her work has provided some of the most fascinating and varied character studies the genre has to offer. With Not Otherwise Specified, her focus falls upon a young female narrator (Moskowitz has leaned more towards male protagonists in the past – and done so with real panache) whose journey goes far beyond a checklist of experiences and tropes.
Etta is a young black bisexual teenager living in Nebraska and recovering from an eating disorder. Having been shunned by her lesbian friends for dating a boy yet still seen as an outcast by the rest of her school, she focuses on her recovery and burgeoning friendship with Bianca, a younger member of her group meetings with a wildly differing life and a shared interest in auditioning for a prestigious arts school in New York.
There’s not much to say in terms of plot because, as always with Moskowitz’s work, that’s not the focus of the novel. This is all about the characters and their messy lives. For all the glitz and escapist fantasies offered by spontaneous Rent sing-alongs on public transport, these are young people struggling with harsh conditions and confronting those realities head-on. Etta, whose voice is mature yet authentically young and confused, is desperately trying not to fall into the same traps that sent her life spiralling off the rails. That’s a fine tightrope to walk, particularly as she juggles an inhospitable high school experience, feeling out of place in the LGBTQ community, physical and emotional recovery, and a younger friend who latches onto others in order to avoid her own issues.
These are characters with issues but it’s never an Issues Story. I must admit I’m a bit hesitant to even use that term because it’s often said so dismissively, as if wanting to tackle the tough stuff that goes on in our everyday lives is a worthless task. Perhaps it’s because we’re too used to sanctimonious lecturing taking the place of real character development, or human pain being packaged and marketed as ‘inspirational’ when it’s more akin to torture porn. Fortunately, Moskowitz is way too good a writer to fall into that trap. Nobody is ever ‘fixed’ in this story. There are no selfless saviours (Bianca’s older brother, her anchor, struggles with his desires for an independent life) and there are no easy answers.
It’s Etta’s voice that truly makes this a special read. Verging on stream-of-consciousness, Etta’s narration is frantic, occasionally disjointed, often very funny and painfully honest, as if she’s rushing to get all of the words out of her head before she forgets them. She feels out of place everywhere and her drive to fit in triggers fears she frequently doubts she’ll get over. Her ambitions carry with them heavy weight while the expectations of herself and others limit rather than free her. She is secure in her bisexuality but struggles with societal attitudes towards it, particularly regarding the LGBTQ community who are often so dismissive of bisexuals. All in all, Etta is an utterly refreshing depiction of a difficult and all too human woman. She is a creation with real blood in her veins.
The story is as much about Bianca’s journey as it is Etta; a tale of women supporting one another and dealing with weighty circumstances. There are too many stand-out moments to discuss but one deserves particular attention: During one group meeting, Bianca breaks down to Etta regarding her Christian parents’ and their inability to deal with having a gay son. Bianca herself struggles with the issue and when other girls in the group defensively call out her homophobia, Etta defends her by pointing out she’s a scared young girl trying to understand how this thing she’s been told her whole life is wrong can possibly apply to the brother she unconditionally loves. It’s a brief moment yet one imbued with the complexities and refusal to be easily categorised that has made Moskowitz’s work so consistently strong.
Other characters fare less well, particularly Etta’s rebound love interest Mason, who seems to have been painted with a broader brush, but their interactions as a wider ensemble ring true. It’s one of the novel’s few weak points, although it’s not a particularly glaring one. The use of the term ‘heterophobia’ certainly raised an eyebrow, especially since ‘biphobia’ would have been more accurate. Heterophobia’s like misandry – hilarious meme but not A Thing. It’s a blunder within the context of a far smarter and more carefully handled story of gender, sexuality, race, class and the various intersections of privilege.
There are few writers out there with the talent and focus of Moskowitz, and Not Otherwise Specified is a vibrant and fully realised portrait of a woman who is complex, prickly, ambitious, scared, self-deprecating, brave and altogether entirely human. Character pieces this beautifully done are hard to come by in any category of fiction.