October 6, 2011

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer: Guest Review

Bonnie from A Backwards Story is dropping by today with a guest review of The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer for Psychtember!

The YA psychological thriller of the year is, without a doubt, THE UNBECOMING OF MARA DYER. I was reading my ARC of this amazing debut novel back when Danya announced Psychtember. Immediately, I knew this book would be a perfect fit. Mara Dyer suffers from PTSD. If you’re unfamiliar with the term or what it entails, Wikipedia defines PTSD as:

  Posttraumatic stress disorder (also known as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD) is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event that results in psychological trauma. This event may involve the threat of death to oneself or to someone else, or to one's own or someone else's physical, sexual, or psychological integrity, overwhelming the individual's ability to cope. As an effect of psychological trauma, PTSD is less frequent and more enduring than the more commonly seen acute stress response. 

Diagnostic symptoms for PTSD include re-experiencing the original trauma(s) through flashbacks or nightmares, avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma, and increased arousal – such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, anger, and hypervigilance. Formal diagnostic criteria (both DSM-IV-TR and ICD-10) require that the symptoms last more than one month and cause significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. ~quote taken from PTSD’s Wikipedia page

Mara used to be an ordinary, happy teenager…until the day she woke up in a hospital to discover that her world had been shattered. One night, she snuck into an abandoned mental asylum with her best friend, boyfriend, and boyfriend’s sister…and the building collapsed. Mara was the only survivor, with barely a scratch on her—but she has no memory of that night.

She’s so traumatized by what happens that she cries in her closet, and has nightmares and visual hallucinations. She does things she doesn’t remember such as wind up with a bloody shard of mirror in her hand. Her mother is concerned and takes Mara to see a specialist, where she is diagnosed with PTSD.

The family moves to Florida hoping for a fresh start so that Mara can heal and move on, but the PTSD never goes away. Instead, it gets worse, but she tucks her hallucinations away where no one can find them and pretends that she’s coping. For example, Mara will be walking down the hallway to her room and see a portrait of her grandmother. She’ll believe that her grandmother’s eyes are moving, that she’s watching Mara. One day, she’s watching a news report concerning the murder of local student Jordana Palmer, but seeing a report where the police have recovered her friends’ bodies from the asylum.

When Mara walks into class for first time at new school and sees the classroom fall apart the way the building she’d been trapped in did and falls and bloodies up her nose. (Way to make a first impression, right?)

“Cracks appeared in the classroom walls as twenty-something heads turned in my direction. The fissures spidered up, higher and higher, until the ceiling began to crumble. My throat went dry. No one said a word, even though dust filled the room, even though I thought I would choke. 

Because it wasn’t happening to anyone else. Just to me. A light crashed to the floor right in front of the teacher, sending a shower of sparks in my direction. Not real. But I tried to avoid them anyway, and fell.” (~pg. 29, US hard cover edition, first printing)

When she goes into the bathroom to wash up, she hallucinates and sees a sinister image of one of the dead girls. That same day during lunch, she hears a dead boy’s laugh behind her, but of course, no one is there…until she turns the corner and swears she sees him:

“Someone laughed behind me. My head snapped up as my blood froze. It was Jude’s laugh. Jude’s voice. I stood slowly and faced the fence, the jungle, as I hooked my fingers in the metal and searched for the source. 

Nothing but trees. Of course. Because Jude was dead. Like Claire. And Rachel. Which meant that I’d had three hallucinations in less than three hours. Which wasn’t good.” (~pg. 35, US hard cover edition, first printing)

There’s another early incident where Mara sees a dog that has been abused by its owner and, fueled by hate, daydreams about his death. The man dies in the exact way she imagined during school hours. Or was he dead when she got there and she imagined their entire confrontation, which is why she so vividly imagined his death later?

The hallucinations get more serious. Mara becomes paranoid, thinking she’s being watched, thinking someone’s breaking into her house. Mara winds up seriously injured, making her mother think she’s suicidal. She experiences scenarios that may or may not be occurring in reality.

“But when I pulled into the driveway, her car wasn’t there. Neither was my father’s. The lights inside the house were off too. Where were they? I went to the front door and reached out to unlock it. 

The door swung in. Before I touched it. 

I stood there, my fingers mere inches from the handle. I stared, my heart in my throat, and raised my eyes slowly up the length of the door. Nothing unusual. Maybe they just forgot to lock it. 

…But the second I entered the hallway, I froze. When I had left the house with Daniel, all of the family pictures had been hung on the left side of the wall, opposite three sets of French doors on the right. 

But now all of the pictures were on the right. And the French doors were on the left. The yogurt fell from my hands, spattering the wall. The spoon clattered to the floor and the sound snapped me back into reality. I had a bad night. I was imagining things. I backed out of the hall, then ran to the kitchen and snatched a dishtowel from the oven handle. When I went back to the hallway, everything would be where it should be. 

I went back to the hallway. Everything was where it should be. 

I hurried to my bedroom, closed the door behind me, and sank onto my bed. I was upset. I shouldn’t have gone out; the party was not, in fact, what I needed. The whole thing was nervous-making and stressful and was probably causing a PTSD episode. I needed to relax. 

…I went to the closet to slip off my dress, but then I froze. An opened box sat on the closet floor. I had no memory of taking it down from the shelves. No memory of ripping the tape off the flaps and opening it since we’d moved. Did I leave it out? I must have. 

…When I noticed the silence, it stole the air from my lungs. I backed away from the closet and peered into the bathroom. The faucet was off. A single drop of water fell, sounding like a bomb in the stillness. The bathtub had overflowed, making the ceramic tile reflect the light like glass. 

I didn’t remember turning the water off. 

But I must have. 

But there was still no way I was getting in. 

…The bathtub drain needed to be unplugged. I made my way over to it carefully, but everything inside me screamed bad idea. I leaned over the edge. 

The emerald and diamond earrings glinted at the bottom. I raised my hands to my ears. Yup, gone. 

…I tested the water with my finger. Nothing happened. 

Of course nothing happened. It was only a bathtub. The pictures had distracted me and I let I overflow, then turned it off without remembering it. Everything was fine. I plunged my arm in. 

….For a second, I could not think. It was as if all feeling beneath my elbow had been cut off. Like the rest of my arm never even existed. 

[hospital]…‘Your arm must have been there for some time,’ [the doctor] said, meeting my eyes. ‘These are some serious burns.’ 

What could I say? That I tested the water before reaching in and it didn’t seem that hot? That it felt like something grabbed me and held me under? I could see in the doctor’s eyes that he thought I was crazy—that I did it on purpose. 

[later at home]...‘I was going to take a bath, but the earrings—’ I took a shaky breath. The earrings you lent me fell into the tub. I had to get them before I could unplug the drain.’ 

‘Did you?’ my mother asked. 

I shook my head. ‘No.’ My voice cracked. 

My mother’s eyebrows knit together. She walked over to me and put her hand on my earlobe. I felt her finger unhook the back of an earring. She held the emerald and diamond stud in her flat palm. I lifted my hand to my other ear; that one was in, too. I removed the earring and placed it in her hand as tears welled in my eyes. I’d imagined the whole thing. ” (~Excerpts from a scene between pgs. 144-151, US hard cover edition, first printing)

I’m not a psychologist, so I couldn’t personally say whether or not Hodkin is realistically portraying PTSD. To me, it feels well. Throughout the novel, it’s unclear whether or not Mara is losing her mind. What’s real and what isn’t? I’ll leave it for the experts to weigh in on the psychological ramifications of Mara’s experience!

For me, I just enjoyed the story for what it is. Which events are truth, and which are lies? Mara’s life is spinning out of control. Is she crazy? Is something unexplainable happening? Is there more at stake than what meets the eye? Unfortunately, answers won’t be provided until the sequel drops in 2012.

Bonnie runs the book review blog A Backwards Story.  While she isn't a psychologist, she is a writer and likes looking at the psyche of a character and seeing what makes him/her tick.  THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO CHARACTER TRAITS by psychologist Dr. Linda Edelstein is her favorite book to recommend to other writers because it's an in-depth look at every type of person, from serial killers to toddlers to one's boss.

Thanks so much for giving us a look at the depiction of PTSD in The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, Bonnie!  

Bonnie has a more general (not psychology-focused) review of the book up on her blog here (which includes a detailed cover design vlog!)


  1. I hate to ask...can you add a few spaces? For some reason, all my line breaks were lost!
    (Esp. in that long passage...it goes forever...I had it between each new set of fragments)

  2. This is a really great review. I posted on your site, Bonnie, that I'm almost done with the book. It really has a hold of me! The passages you posted here were some great moments. The earrings thing really freaked me out! The other hallucinations were so obvious, but with this one I never thought for a second they hadn't dropped.

  3. PS New follower of Tapestry. :) Good stuff!

  4. Thanks, Danya! :)

    @Bethany: I'm so glad you're enjoying MARA DYER so much. I almost didn't post the shower moment because it's eerier on its own, but it's such a pivotal scene! This was so freaky!


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