“I have never visited a school where sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault aren’t problems”, writes Laura Bates in an accompanying author letter that came with her new novel, which sees a group of seven high school students stranded on a desert island after a plane crash. The Trial might be a story of physical survival in its most basic form – stick a bunch of teenagers on an island with no food or water and see if and how they endure it – but the real core of the novel is an exploration of sexism, complicity, consent and the traumatic experiences the teenagers carry onto the plane with them like material baggage. These feelings of persecution, fear, injustice and anger don’t just disappear with the crash. Instead they’re exposed to a confined environment where they fester – and it’s only a matter of time before the collective wounds the teens are nursing become impossible to ignore.
Washed up on a remote island, the teenagers’ initial concern is simply surviving. Sourcing non-toxic food, clean water, shade from the blistering sun and supplies that will aid them in staying alive for as long as it takes for them to be rescued. Hayley, one of the four cheerleaders in the group but an outsider by all accounts, senses something deeply wrong plaguing the other teens; a terrible secret that followed them onto the island that nobody else seems willing to acknowledge. Not religious Jessa, who prays every night in her makeshift tent; not snarky May, who uses sarcasm like a weapon; not aloof head cheerleader Shannon, her controlling boyfriend Jason or his equally alpha male best friend Brian. Not even Elliot, the other ostensible outsider of the group, who Hayley hoped would be an ally. But when someone – perhaps one of the group, perhaps someone else entirely – starts targeting each of the teenagers, hurting them physically and playing tricks with their minds, Hayley becomes determined to bring the truth out into the open.
From the perspective of a thought-provoking novel dealing with urgent themes, The Trial is an important and timely story for young adults. There’s so much secrecy and silence within the group but it’s not all for the same reason. For some of the teens, their silence is a matter of self-preservation; for others it’s a stubborn reluctance to admit something bad happened and they didn’t or couldn’t stop it. And for a small minority, mainly Jason and Brian, it’s a complete ignorance of how their actions and words affect the people – specifically the girls – around them. But the silence makes them all complicit – regardless of the reason for it. Being an outsider might not feel very good but it does allow Hayley to look at their situation objectively and be honest. She’s not afraid to delve into the group’s secrets and moreover, she knows that the best way to tackle an important issue is to talk about it candidly – something Laura Bates is so adept at doing, both in her writing and her wider work as a gender-equality activist.
The part of the story that deals with conversations around sexual assault, specifically how people talk about and react to it, is very powerful and feels like vital reading for the book’s YA demographic. Bates writes about her young, female characters’ experiences so emotively that you feel every second of their heartache, hurt and frustration. However, the plane crash/Lord of the Flies-esque survival aspect of the story doesn’t gel with the novel’s weightier themes. In fact, after the initial panic of the plane crash dies down, rather than adding even more tension and desperation, the island begins to feel slightly gimmicky and false – more like a flat stage backdrop than a vivid, three dimensional location. It says something that the most riveting part of the book is the chapter where the characters finally discuss the night of the alcohol-fuelled party that ultimately created such division within the group. In other words: the part that took place away from the island…
Whilst the end of the book is so abrupt you’re likely to find yourself flicking through pages wondering if you missed a chapter, Bates wraps up her story with a hope-filled message about the importance of speaking up, fighting back, supporting each other and listening to each other’s stories – no matter how hard they are to hear. It’s the kind of message that young people need to read and absorb if we’re ever going to create change. For that alone, this is a book that teens and young adults should be adding to their contemporary mystery and feminist reading lists.
The Trial is published by Simon & Schuster on 16 September 2021