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The Other Side Of Perfect by Mariko Turk

A review by Nalini Haynes

Alina, a Japanese American ballet dancer, had an accident. The resulting damage to her ankle prevents her from ever dancing pointe again. Her entire life she’s worked and trained for ballet, vying for perfection, and now, the other side of perfect, she needs to rebuild her life.

Allen and Unwin’s blurb says:

Alina Keeler was destined to dance, but one terrifying fall shatters her leg – and her dreams of a ballet career along with it. After a summer spent healing (translation: eating vast amounts of Cool Ranch Doritos and bingeing ballet videos on YouTube), she must trade her preprofessional dance classes for normal high school, where she reluctantly joins the musical.

Rehearsals are nothing compared to Alina’s past life at the acclaimed Kira Dobrow Ballet School. But the stage does offer more than she expected – namely her castmate Jude. He’s annoyingly attractive, ridiculously optimistic and, worst of all, Alina just might be falling for him. However, finding a new normal means making peace with her past and acknowledging the racism she faced. Deep down, Alina still yearns for the world of ballet she left behind. But what does it mean to love something beautiful, yet broken? And as broken as she feels, can she ever open her heart to someone else?

Alina’s journey

Alina broke her ankle. Despite reconstructive surgery, the severity of the break means it cannot heal properly. Her movement and strength are limited, meaning ballet is no longer a career option. Alina struggles with her grief, somewhat like Wendy Orr’s protagonist in Peeling the Onion. The difference is that Orr’s character broke her neck to become bed-bound while Alina is still mobile, thus Alina’s journey is not as dark or rage-filled.

Not only has Alina lost her career, which was the love of her life, but she’s lost the world she knows. Instead of attending a mainstream school for a few hours a day before heading to ballet school, she’s at the mainstream school all the time. In the beginning she doesn’t have any friends, no career plans, no aspiration for college… She needs to grieve and find new interests and new friends. It’s a process.

Representation of disability

Alina shows a person who acquires a kind-of disability but is still a real person, with relatable feelings, problems, grief and agency. I say “a kind-of disability” because, from Alina’s perspective, her broken ankle disabled her and destroyed her career. However, from your average person in the street’s point of view, not being able to dance pointe (on her toes) is normal. Temper that with Alina’s need for physio and the stiffness her leg feels, especially when driving a great distance, and it’s arguable that she has a degree of disability.

I felt that Alina was disabled but others may disagree with me.

My biggest concern with Alina’s level of disability is that I’ve known people who’ve had pins in their arms and it’s taken a lot longer to regain mobility and they’ve been a lot more fragile, a lot more disabled, afterwards. Alina’s youth tempers this issue: as a teenager, she should heal more quickly and effectively than an adult. I’m not in a position to know so I raise this merely in the hopes that readers won’t use Alina’s recovery as a yard-stick against which they judge others.

Grief and disability

However, Alina’s grief is common to people who acquire a disability or even those of us born with disabilities. Losses cause grief but so do barriers, seeing others move forward while prejudice and lack of disability access hold us back. Alina experiences the emotional journey with recurring moments of grief for ballet but she does not have the compounding problems of ableism and recurring barriers other than that she can longer perform ballet. These recurring events cause fresh and renewed grief for many.

Factoring in the above, I’m giving The Other Side of Perfect 4.5 out of 5 for representation of disability. My justification is that Alina’s disability is pretty much invisible unless you see her scar, it is an athletic injury and does not require disability access, all of which is consistent within the story. Keep reading for the final story rating…

Race

Alina experienced racism at ballet school, emphasized by her teacher, Kira, annually casting Alina in the Nutcracker’s Chinese Tea Dance. This dance is racist, so much so that its moves are imitated by racist bullies.

While at ballet school, her best friend – who is African American – tried raising the issue with both Alina and Kira. Alina’s single-minded focus on her career and conforming to the expectations of ballet meant that she was largely blind to the racism she suffered until she had some distance.

The Other Side Of Perfect pursues this story thread alongside Alina’s grieving, growing and romance.

Fan service

By page 15 Turk has disability AND a reference to the Little Shop of Horrors. If I had any doubts about The Other Side Of Perfect, it hooked me then. There are other pop culture references scattered through the story.

The verdict

The Other Side Of Perfect is a story of loss, grief, and rebuilding. Alina faces racism and learns to speak up. Her grief over loss of ballet seems earth-shattering at first but gradually she learns to live and love again. I particularly love the ending, which is full of possibilities but does not include a magical (scientific) cure. This novel is excellent bibliotherapy for teens who are struggling to come to terms with loss. And for those who so immersed in their grief that they cannot see beyond it.

Read The Other Side Of Perfect if you enjoyed Jennifer Iacopelli’s Break The Fall, which is similar but, instead of disability, focuses on the impact of a sexual predator on a teenage Olympics gymnastics team.

Book details

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
ISBN: 9781760526252
Imprint: A & U Children (Allen & Unwin)
Released: 2021
Format: paperback, 336 pages
Age: 12 – 18 (and older)
Category: teen fiction, social issues, race

The other side of perfect: a ballerina poses on the cover

Nalini
Nalinihttps://www.darkmatterzine.com
Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.

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