Ever since seventeen-year-old Josie Wright can remember, writing has been her identity, the thing that grounds her when everything else is a garbage fire. So when she wins a contest to write a celebrity profile for Deep Focus magazine, she’s equal parts excited and scared, but also ready. She’s got this.
Soon Josie is jetting off on a multi-city tour, rubbing elbows with sparkly celebrities, frenetic handlers, stone-faced producers, and eccentric stylists. She even finds herself catching feelings for the subject of her profile, dazzling young newcomer Marius Canet. Josie’s world is expanding so rapidly, she doesn’t know whether she’s flying or falling. But when a young actress lets her in on a terrible secret, the answer is clear: she’s in over her head.
One woman’s account leads to another and another. Josie wants to expose the man responsible, but she’s reluctant to speak up, unsure if this is her story to tell. What if she lets down the women who have entrusted her with their stories? What if this ends her writing career before it even begins? There are so many reasons not to go ahead, but if Josie doesn’t step up, who will?
If you know me, then you will know that one of my favourite books of all time is Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett, a story about a Black teen living with HIV+ and how she navigates first love. From there, I vowed that I would read any book by Camryn – and knew that I would love whatever she wrote. It came to no surprise to me, then, that her sophomore novel, Off the Record, would effortlessly find its place in my top reads of 2021. I adore this book with my whole heart, and it is a timely, relevant, and searing piece of contemporary fiction that pays a victim-centered tribute to the power of necessity of the #MeToo movement that started in 2006 with Tarana Burke and re-emerged with force in 2017.
Off the Record follows Josie, a bisexual Black teen journalist who lands the chance of a lifetime: to go on a multi-city tour following the cast and crew of an upcoming movie, and to do a celebrity profile on and up-and-coming young Black actor, Marius Canet. However, when Josie learns of a terrible secret and more and more people come forward with the same allegations, Josie will have to find courage and voice and bring a powerful predator to justice.
The story powerfully explores the impact of sexual violence, particularly when the perpetrators are powerful people in an industry, who possess the power to discredit, blacklist, or shame their victims. This searing examination is challenging to read at times, and the storytelling powerfully captures how unspeakably daunting and intimidating it is to a singular person, made to feel isolated in an incident, to be confronted with someone who can dictate your career and future. It portrays how often victims are confronted with an impossible choice of staying silent on their experience of assault and keeping their careers, or speaking up and losing everything in the process. Furthermore, Off the Record depicts that these situations are products of institutionalised misogyny, in which cis white men are protected by the industry and victims, especially marginalised victims, are often delegitimised, depicted as ‘mentally ill’.
Off the Record is plain and honest in the machinations of institutionalized misogyny, and depicts the consequences and life-long implications of assault and how the industry protects abusers. And though the story depicts this with the gravity and severity that it deserves, the story also emphasises that there is power in solidarity, that survivors are not alone, and that sexual assault, no matter how big or small, is still sexual assault and is wrong. As the story culminates towards Josie writing the exposé and the possible costs of speaking up, the exploration of sexual assault and speaking up is cathartic and, ultimately, hopeful.
The exploration of the intersection of power and sexual violence is phenomenal, but what I loved about Off the Record was how it reads like a story that feels deeply personal, rather than a purely thematic story in which Josie is merely the vessel of the story’s themes. In other words, Off the Record explores sexual assault, yes, but it also explores Josie’s feelings about experiencing anti-fat microaggressions, her anxiety, how she grapples with the doubt that she feels, first love, and her complicated yet nuanced relationship with her older sister. Josie’s experiences and how she navigates the world as a Black, fat, and anxious teen feels effortless and natural, intertwined with the story. Importantly, Josie’s Blackness, her fatness, and her anxiety aren’t framed as ‘negative’ things or obstacles to overcome; rather, they are framed as an inherent part of her life in which, like all things, come with moments of frustration but also moments of joy and love.
The phenomenal writing brings the story together; Josie’s authentic teenage voice is immediately engaging and instantly endearing. Josie’s character and her voice feels so earnest; she doesn’t always know the answers and she questions the world around her, wondering aloud the injustices that happen and why they are allowed to happen. There’s a vulnerability in Josie’s character and voice, which makes her both relatable and such a compelling narrator.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Camryn Garret’s sophomore novel is searing, relevant, and profound, and a marvel of young adult fiction. Its exploration of sexual assault is timely and relevant, and Josie’s personal portrait as a Black fat teen is gorgeous and real. I absolutely loved Off the Record, and I cannot recommend it enough. Once again, I can’t wait to read what Camryn has in store for us next.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A teen journalist wins the opportunity to do a celebrity profile, but during the multi-city tour comes across a terrible secret – and decides to use her writing talent to speak up.
Perfect for: Readers interested in the #MeToo movement or looking for stories that explores sexual assault; readers who enjoy relatable and authentic teen voices; readers who enjoy stories that balance a variety of themes
Think twice if: you’re not in the mood for a story that explores tough and heavy topics
Genre: young adult contemporary
Trigger/content warning: discussions and explicit recount of sexual assault and sexual harrassment, anti-fat microaggressions (challenged), racist microaggressions (challenged)