Shame on You by Clara Salaman
|Shame on You by Clara Salaman|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ceri Padley|
|Summary: Clara Salaman's debut novel is a dark and mysterious look at the inside goings-on and lasting affects of a religious cult in modern London. Gripping and heartbreaking, Shame on You is an instant page-turner.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: August 2009|
Thirteen-year-old Caroline Stern loves hanging out with her friends, has a reputation as the class clown, and is in love with Mr. Steinberg, her Greek teacher. Sounds like an average London teenager, right? Not quite.
Caroline has been growing up as part of a religious sect. They call themselves 'The Organization' and discourage their members from communicating with the 'outside world.' Their goal is to live a happy and peaceful life through teachings, strict meditation, obeying the little-seen Mr. Wapinski, and worshipping The Absolute. Unfortunately for them, Caroline has something they also try to suppress: free will.
After a series of unjustified dictations and punishments, Caroline decides to exact revenge on the terrifying teacher, Miss Fowler, in an impulsive act that will change the rest of her life. Written from Caroline's point of view, we are taken from the days of living in social isolation as one of 'them', to how she lives now, twenty-five years later, and trying to move on from that part of her life.
Caroline's childhood stories are some of the most interesting in the book as she allows us to dive into a world behind closed doors. Knowing exactly how to satisfy her readers' curiosities, author Clara Salaman allows us tasters from a place of mystery similar to those we come across in real life. While the world is filled with hundreds of religious sects and cults that we rarely get the chance to sneak a peek into, Shame on You provides us with an amalgam of some of the most mystifying followings from the last century. Taking pieces from this religion and portions from that one, you get the sense that while 'The Organization' is intended to be about love, peace, and reincarnating to a better life, there's something not quite right – and Caroline knows it!
Her wilful adventures send us through some scary predicaments but, while she is just a thirteen-year-old through half of the book, she is clearly a mature one and very self-aware about 'the outside world'. This is one of the reasons we can cling onto her as a narrator – while some of her instincts cling to the faith she holds for her religion, she is aware she is different and hungry for a taste of 'normality.'
Twenty-five years later, Caroline is living with her boyfriend and trying to forget ever having been a part of 'The Organization.' What's interesting is that, at times, this half of the book threatens to become an unoriginal piece of modern 'chick lit' about a woman trying to overcome the demons from her past but, with Salaman's quick witted storytelling taking us through all the twists and turns, it doesn't. It turns into something serious and fascinating that I found really hard to put down.
While switching back and forth from young Caroline to adult Caroline, readers will find themselves clinging on to every word in this complicated journey through the life of a fighter. Though the story's not complex, Salaman includes the right number of obstacles in Caroline's life to keep us interested.
A little too interested at times – Salaman's words proved to provoke so much curiosity that I found myself slightly disappointed that we don't learn enough about the religious sect she's created. We never quite understand how young Caroline has become aware that she's different from the 'normal' people of London or what made her so embarrassed about how she lives, especially if she has been raised to see 'The Organization' as normal. I was also hoping we'd see more reasoning behind Caroline's hatred of Miss Fowler, rather than the average teacher-pupil relationship between a strict, old-fashioned elder and a challenging teenager. Furthermore, Caroline's long-awaited confrontation with her lifelong enemies proved to be a bit of an anti-climax but has good intentions and underlying tones that show us she's grown into an independent and self-assured woman.
Readers who enjoy modern fiction with shades of mystery/crime will love this novel. Those who take an interest in religion, sects, and cults will also not be disappointed. A fabulous look at what happens when free will is restrained, and the continuing battle to reclaim it. Shame on You is everything it promises to be.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
Younger readers who enjoy this kind of fiction are recommended The Angel Collector by Bali Rai.
You can read more book reviews or buy Shame on You by Clara Salaman at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Shame on You by Clara Salaman at Amazon.com.
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This book should be compulsory reading for all teenagers because it sheds light some of the dark underbelly of fundamentalism in a humourous and accessible format that could be used to educate and stimulate debate. The criticisms that Clara fails to explain enough about the religious sect she has created and the relationship with her teacher and how she knows she is different to normal people would be a valid criticism of the book if it were a stand-alone novel - however, a quick search for the school Clara attended (Saint James Independent School, now based in Olympia and Twickenham) and the organisation that founded it (School of Economic Science and it's many other guises) brings up a wealth of material that could keep the interested reader immersed for months. More interesting is the journey that Clara describes: the one you make when you discover how ill-equipped you are when you emerge into everyone else's normality. Worst case, you think you've escaped but are so ill equipped that you either perish or return to 'The Organisation'.
Clara tackles the subject with great humour. It's a simple plot and the emotional problems are presented in an understandable and reasoned way which makes the subject very accessible to younger teens. It is a novel in that it's not completely factual, as far as I know no-one actually exacted the revenge described, but a lot of the places, beliefs, attitudes, relationships and events she describes are not fictional, not only did we live them, according to the philosophy of the organisation we chose them. Some of us read this 'novel' knowing who died, who jumped, who's dad had the affair with his daughter's teacher etc.
So, you now know that this review is written from the perspective of someone who remembers nearly every character, corridor and location in the book that relates to the descriptions of the school. While reading it I was heard to laugh, giggle, sigh and at time wail with misery as I remembered those times. Clara's book is valuable to those of us that went to school either with her or at the sister school which has since closed because we can now put a book in people's hands and say "This is exactly what it was like." From the colour of the carpets to the corporal punishment; from vedic dance to the instruction "if it stays still polish it, if it moves serve it tea" (in a tea cup, from a tea pot, on a tray, preferably with a doily and a flower in a vase).
To me, reading about 'Miss Fowler' and her barbed wire nipples, the gorgeous and funny 'Mr Steinberg', and even 'Wapinski' (the 'Organisation's' ethos was influenced by Ouspensky - geddit!) put me back in the classrooms in that overlooked Queensgate, Portobello Road and Hampstead Heath (remember Cruella's house in 101 Dalmations anyone?) and the country houses owned by the organisation where we went to stay. It also reminded me of the excrutiating embarassment of the uniform in general and being made to 'pause' in a public place. St Augustines was the Church opposite, the school on the next block had a purple uniform (there is a clue in the text: since when were Smurfs purple?! Actually, we weren't all smurfs, the sister school St Vedast had the same uniform but in green). I too spent time facing the wall in 'Miss Fowler's' office, or in solitary writing out lines using a calligraphy pen or learning passages from the Pilgrim's Progress or The Upanishads. Even the small details about having to duck to get into the dungeon brought back the odour of those cloakrooms, mixed with the smell from the kitchens just down the hall. I remember the cupboard for making yoghourt, the dining rooms that doubled as book-shops for the 'Organisation's' philosophy school. The smell of the bag lady living in the doorway opposite the school came back to me as I read.
For some people life after a cult can be like that photo of you wearing green furry boots and a blue catsuit which you thought at the time made you look so cool but later realise is just embarassingly stupid; They say 'hey, I can't believe I ever...' and move on. Unfortunately, the pupils at the school were not given the choice of whether they attended - and, as portrayed in the book, some stayed, some moved on, some thrived and some suffered lasting effects.
Thank you Clara, for telling the world y/our story.
For those readers who wish to learn more about the facts behind the book, there's a forum here with a lively discussion on the topic. I am the administrator of that forum and encourage anyone interested to visit and contribute.