the Little Red Reviewer

Pen Pal, by Francesca Forrest

Posted on: June 13, 2014

pen palPen Pal, by Francesca Forrest

published Feb 2014

where I got it: Received review copy from the author














From the cover art, my husband thought this novel might be a romance. Personally, I had no idea what to expect. But I was hooked about 5 pages in. It was as if at the same moment, Em threw a fishing line into the ocean, and Kaya lowered a line into the lava lake, and they both caught me and reeled me in. Good thing this book has quality binding, otherwise my copy wouldn’t be in such good shape by now because I pretty much carried it around everywhere.


I very recently read Long Hidden, which features marginalized characters and stories. Everything in Long Hidden was historical fiction, stories and situations that should never be relegated to the margins, but still, are history. I didn’t plan to read the books concurrently, but while reading Pen Pal I watched marginalization in action, happening right in front of my eyes.  And it was shockingly sobering.  Due to adult content, Long Hidden probably isn’t appropriate for the under fifteen crowd. But Pen Pal is perfect for the YA crowd, and for any reader looking for stories from the margins.  And if you’re just looking for a damn good book with two empowering women, Pen Pal is that too.


On a lark, young Em puts a message in a bottle, and throws it into the ocean.

“If you find it, please write back to me at this address. Tell me what the world is like where you are”,

says the end of the note. From her home in a floating community in the Gulf of Mexico, the bottle finds it’s way to a tiny island nation near Malaysia and into the hands of Kaya, a political prisoner whose prison hangs over a volcano.


Written in an epistolary fashion, Pen Pal is the intersection of Em’s and Kaya’s life, and it is fantastic story. What could a twelve year old girl from a  floating community have in common with a suspected insurrectionist? More than you might think.

Em lives in Mermaid’s Hands. Her small community has everything it needs: loving families, food from the ocean, building materials that wash up on the shore.  One person in the village has a phone, the children usually go barefoot, and money is rare. But what do you need a phone, shoes, or money for? Anyone you need is within shouting distance, shoes would just get wrecked in the mudflats, and stand still long enough and dinner will come nibbling on your toes. Em knows the Sea Father provides for his children, and takes them back at the end of their lives. Kaya never meant to do anything wrong, nothing she did had anything to do with a rebellion, she can’t control if the rebels look to her as a poster child for their cause. A child of the mountain peoples, she helped plan a local festival celebrating a mountain deity, the Lady of the Ruby Lake.  the festival triggered feelings of pride and dreams of independence, thus she was branded a criminal, and was “gifted” with living out her life in the “Lotus Temple” above a lava lake. Oh, and it’s an active volcano.


The government sees one group is seen as poverty stricken squatters who fish in restricted areas and don’t pay taxes, the other is seen as backward villagers who refuse to live in the 21st century and wish to keep their children uneducated.  Em doesn’t feel like a squatter, and Kaya never felt backward or uneducated as a child.


I loved how Forrest handled characterization. Due to the diary entry and letter writing style, almost all the prose is in first person, from the point of view of different characters. Kaya thinks about her childhood friends, how she never really knew Rami’s parents’ horrible fate, and how she learned how to make friends at her city school by never mentioning home, by hiding her accent, and by ignoring the fact that the history books relegate her ethnic group to a footnote. Kaya wants to fit in, she wants to make friends. To what extent can assimilation and pride in your own culture co-exist?


And you’d think the diary entries of a twelve year old would be a list of what she did that day and who she has a crush on (oh wait, those were my diary entries when I was twelve), but Em is incredibly observant, and this translates into a deftly done double faceted method of characterization with Em and her family: We of course learn about her family, but we learn about her by how she describes them. That she’s a little jealous of her sister but won’t ever admit it, that she knows her parents are fighting but she doesn’t understand why, that she sympathizes with her brother who wanted to see more of the world, that the way her aunt looks at her makes her feel ashamed of being a poor black girl. And Em’s voice is that of a young adult, sometimes her spelling and grammar aren’t quite right, sometimes she doesn’t know how to say what she feels.


Kaya tries to explain what’s happened to her in words a twelve year old would understand. It’s not that Em is dumb, far from it, it’s that Kaya doesn’t want to scare her, doesn’t want this young innocent girl to learn how ugly the world is. The two women inspire each other, and share happy moments of their lives. When Kaya is threatened by her government, when the lives of her family and friends are threatened, will she confess to being something she isn’t? When a hurricane comes through the gulf and destroys the ramshackle community of Mermaid’s Hands, can Em’s family survive being split up and relocated? Will the government allow Mermaid’s Hands to rebuild? To the residents, this is their home, where their grandparents were born, where their children were born, where their dead have been given to the Sea Father. To the government, it’s a squatter camp.  Where’s the line between squatter and villager? What makes a community and a culture legitimate?


The first three quarters of Pen Pal were unputdownable. It’s right at the end that the story faltered a bit for me. Generally speaking, Forrest doesn’t shy away from putting characters into mortal danger (and even killing some off), but then at the end, I felt she played it completely safe. Events happen very easily, and it feels like a happy ending for everyone is inevitable. I wouldn’t call the ending saccharinely happy to be sure, but it did feel like Forrest played it very safe and simple, after two hundred pages of taking lots of risks. Only in the last fifty pages or so did I think to myself “oh. is this YA?”.
With no pushiness, no pretension, no heavy handedness, Pen Pal puts a lot of questions on the table.  Forrest offers no answers. She leaves that up to the reader. And these aren’t the kinds of questions that are answered in words, they are the kind that are answered in how (or if) your worldview changes.


1 Response to "Pen Pal, by Francesca Forrest"

[…] recently read and reviewed Pen Pal, a most extraordinary novel by Francesca Forrest.  Click here to read my review of Pen Pal, but the super quick summary is that this epistolary novel focuses […]


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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