By Claire Jow (23A01B)
Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.
Moving to a new school is always hard, but it seems to be particularly tough on fifteen-year-old Lia Setiawan, who managed to enter the prestigious Draycott Academy based solely on her skill in track and field.
The shiny surface of her new school, however, hides a dark interior. There are drug deals, illegal activities, and ominous messages scrawled on the walls; soon enough, she’s become the next target of the school’s anonymous gossip app, Draycott Dirt. As she struggles to find her footing as a fish out of water in a school full of filthy-rich students, she becomes entangled in a cheating ring that leads to one of the greatest mistakes of her entire life.
The New Girl’s biggest draw is how action-packed it is: not a single chapter bored me, and the drama was consistent and engaging enough that it kept me eagerly turning the pages. Towards the last few chapters, however, the pace of the plot sped up immensely, and the ending felt almost rushed: there was a twist at the end that the book barely gave us time to process before it leapt into its final conclusion.
The main character herself is likeable—flawed enough to be relatable to readers but capable of handling her own issues such that she isn’t an annoying damsel-in-distress. I connected with her well enough to feel anxious for her in stressful situations (which she got into a lot of). Other side characters were also enjoyable, though it felt like we didn’t see enough of their perspectives to grow particularly attached to them. In particular, Sam and Grace, two of the girls in Lia’s friend group, felt virtually indistinguishable from one another.
My biggest gripe about this book is how simplistically the conflicts are portrayed. With a story that deals with heavy topics like racism, classism, underage drinking, drug use and a corrupt school system, I thought the book had a real opportunity to offer a more nuanced portrayal of these issues. Instead, the antagonists (students and staff alike) seemed rather one-dimensional and cartoonishly “evil”, with little to no depth to give the reader cause to feel sympathy for them. Then again, this could be intentional, as the story seems to be targeted towards younger readers.
This brings me to a rather confusing aspect of this book: who exactly is it written for? The main character is a young teen, and the troubles she deals with are of the rather mature kind. However, I felt like the rambling, overexcited tone of the narration combined with a very “telling” and not “showing” style of storytelling makes the writing feel very much like a “middle-school novel”. That is, the story seems very ungrounded in reality—it feels something like a fever dream.
Despite my few complaints though, I was still able to derive a lot of enjoyment from reading this book. One of its strong points is the way it showcases Chinese-Indonesian culture in a way that felt truly authentic (and Singaporean culture as well—I got so excited when Beth started speaking Singlish). I enjoyed the “dark academia/old money” aesthetic of the story, though it was most prevalent in the first few chapters. Additionally, I particularly liked Stacey’s character as she felt the most like a real teenager out of the whole main cast.
Overall, I would recommend The New Girl to anyone with a few hours to kill on a weekend and in need of a fast-paced drama to spice up the day.