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Book Review: Honey by Isabel Banta

Book Review: Honey by Isabel Banta

Any book that opens with a quote from early ‘00s-era Britney is almost guaranteed to capture my attention, and Honey is a book that had me hooked from that one quoted line from ‘Overprotected’.

Charting the life and career of a young star as she navigates fame, love and notoriety, Isabel Banta’s debut novel is a cross between a coming-of-age story and a Behind the Music special, serving to peel back the glossy veneer of the late 90s and early 00s era of pop music superstardom and document the experiences of one young woman at the centre of it all. The result is an unflinching and evocative story of a young girl and her meteoric rise to fame, all wrapped up in the recognisable, nostalgic beats of an era-defining slice of recent music history.

The year is 1997, and Amber Young is about to become one of the most infamous pop stars of her era. At just sixteen, Amber has received a life-changing call offering her a chance that thousands of girls would die for: the opportunity to join new girl group Cloud9. As she flies to Los Angeles to make her dream come true, Amber soon finds herself in the orbit of fellow rising stars singer-dancer Gwen Morris and Wes Kingston, a member of the biggest boy band in the world. As Amber embarks on her solo career, her fame intensifies and she finds herself under more scrutiny than ever before. Driven by a desire for recognition and success, for love and sex, and for agency and connection, Amber comes of age at a time when the kaleidoscope of public opinion can distort everything, and one mistake can shatter a whole career.

I want this forever. Because when I sing, I feel like I’m returning to the earth, tunnelling deep into it, myself at the bottom. And I want to bound across it – feet pounding, heart bursting, until I’ve experienced everything, everything there is to ever be felt.”

Y2K nostalgia may be having a bit of a moment right now, but Honey is here to remind us of the realities of the dark, exploitative and manipulative underbelly of the era that could too easily be forgotten about when we think back on the aesthetic, the culture and, of course, the music. In Amber Young, this novel has a character who experiences the entire tumult of life as a young starlet in the public eye, from career setbacks and scathing media scrutiny to the seedy overtones of middle-aged music executives who undermine and over-sexualise her, dismiss her opinions and reduce her to a stereotype. Even as Amber fights for her place in the music industry, at awards shows and in the charts, this novel makes it heartbreakingly clear that she is also just a young teenaged girl struggling to figure out who she is, what she desires and what she is capable of.

It makes for a dizzying, all-encompassing read, albeit one which trips over the feet of its own quick-pace narrative at times, lingering in some years for perhaps a beat too long before jumping months at a time to speed ahead through future years too. Through it all, however, Amber is a steady, reliable presence whose character is shaped slowly but surely by all of her experiences, from the overwhelming emotions of her first relationship and its messy, disruptive fallout to the friendships she forges, takes for granted and fights for, and the growing confidence in her own voice and her own capabilities as an artist along the way.

This book is full of shades of all the pop stars, artists, boybands and girl groups who made waves in the late 90s and early 00s, and while it does help to further root this novel into a certain moment of time, there are perhaps a few too many recognisable parallels between some real-life figures and the fictional characters of Bantas book. The biggest roadblock to Honey’s success, however, is that it feels like there are a few too many missed opportunities in this novel, with the story brushing over some important topics and hinting at interesting ideas of the duality of the public vs private personas of these young stars, but without ever digging any deeper into the ideas it touches upon.

Honey may be a novel that’s gilded in pop music, fame and stardom, but it’s undeniably a coming-of-age story at its heart, and by the end of Amber’s story there’s no denying that it’s a triumphant and ultimately empowering one too. From the very first page, this novel draws you in with its beautiful writing and fast-paced plot line, and there’s always a fresh layer or new dimension to add to this story. There’s a lot to like, definitely, and Amber’s character development (not to mention all the shifting implications it has for the book’s title) is a true highlight of the novel too.

If you grew up reading Smash Hits, listening to music on your CD Walkman and staying up late while waiting for your favourite pop stars’ new music videos to drop on MTV, then this is a novel that needs to end up on your reading list this summer. Honey may feel at times like it is a little narratively uneven and a little too rushed, but it’s also a debut novel that’s so immersive – and so compulsively readable – that anyone who picks it up is sure to lose themselves in the early ‘00s pop bubble all over again.


Honey is published by Zaffre on 25 June 2024

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