Review: Kaleidoscope Song by Fox Benwell
Genre: YA contemporary
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: September 19, 2017
South Africa is loud. Listen. Do you hear the song and dance of it? The chorus of Khayelitsha life? Every voice is different, its pitch and tone and intonation as distinct as the words we choose and how we wrap our mouths around them. But everybody has a voice, and everybody sings…
Fifteen year old Neo loves music, it punctuates her life and shapes the way she views the world. A life in radio is all she’s ever wanted.
When Umzi Radio broadcasts live in a nearby bar Neo can’t resist. She sneaks out to see them, and she falls in love, with music, and the night, but also with a girl: Tale has a voice like coffee poured into a bright steel mug, and she commands the stage.
It isn’t normal. Isn’t right. Neo knows that she’s supposed to go to school and get a real job and find a nice young boy to settle down with. It’s written everywhere – in childhood games, and playground questions, in the textbooks, in her parents’ faces. But Tale and music are underneath her skin, and try as she might, she can’t stop thinking about them.
Disclaimer: I received an electronic ARC of this via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Kaleidoscope Song is a new release from Fox Benwell centered around the South African music scene and treatment of LGBTQ issues. Now, it appears that the synopsis (above) has changed since I requested the book, potential out of fear of it being a “spoiler,” so I really want to mention this as it is a huge trigger warning: one of the issues this book deals with is corrective rape. (This is the practice of men raping queer women to “cure” them by showing them what they’re supposed to like.) Even knowing this going on, it still came when I didn’t quite expect it. It isn’t terribly graphic, but it does not downplay the issue,and ultimately it ends with an uplift. Frankly, lesser authors would have left the story shortly after the tragedy instead of unpacking it and emphasizing that our community survives and endures. Furthermore, Benwell’s author’s note is great at explaining the complex situation in South African in regard to LGBTQ rights and attitudes, as well as his own privileges.
What’s immediately apparent in Kaleidoscope Song is the distinctive detail and voice. I admit to not knowing much about South Africa, so I am unsure how accurate some parts are, but the detail indicates it was well-researched. This can make it a little confusing and first–Facebook and cassette tapes?–but that just makes it a worthwhile window into a world we here in American don’t think too much about. Neo’s voice–especially her connection to music is also so vivid and beautiful, and particularly poignant to a fellow music-lover (and queer girl) myself.
I loved seeing Neo grow into her own voice (or song, as the narrative says) as she got her own radio show and grew more confident in her identity. I very much rooted for the romance between Neo and Tale, and a lot of that attests to how well Neo’s complex feelings are communicated. There is palpable tension–not just the sexual tension before they get together, but the fears of being found out. Some of the tension dissipated as Neo successfully sneaked out of her house over and over, but then there were new tensions. I do wish a got a little more of the minor characters in their group, but shout out to Neo’s little brother, Jesu, is also so cute and loving and made me cry.
There’s also an extensive playlist/list of songs in the back that are mentioned or Benwell drew inspiration from–mostly South African tunes–that are going to be interesting to check out! I definitely recommend this book (if you are prepared for/comfortable with the subject matter) for its detail, voice, characterization, and storyline! It is also a pretty quick read because the chapters are quite short.