Jana Novak is a 16-year-old from a council estate in south London. Her friends all seem to have a plan, but gangly and awkward Jana isn’t sure what her next step in life should be. Then, while on a school trip with her friends, she’s spotted by a talent scout and enters the other-worldy career of high fashion modelling.
So begins the latest YA novel from Juno Dawson. According to Dawson, she used her own experiences in fashion journalism and modelling, as well as two years of talking to people in the industry, to inform the story; the research shows. There is something incredibly genuine about this novel in its depiction of the beauty trade’s ugly side.
Dawson describes the coercion and exploitation of models working in the industry with a gritty realism, but also with a sensitivity that does not feel at all voyeuristic. The whole tone of the book is measured and balanced. I don’t pity or feel sorry for Jana but I do always feel that I am completely on her side. Throughout this tale, Dawson manages to make Jana’s story feel timely and universal without ever straying into cliche.
At its core, Meat Market is about the #MeToo movement and the fallout that happens when women try to speak out against men in power, but there are a wealth of other important topics that are also touched upon. Many pressing intersectional issues are dealt with here: racism, sexuality, modern slavery, sex work, problematic beauty standards, labour rights and eating disorders to name just a few. The book covers a lot of ground but manages to deal with all these topics in a careful and candid way, making points which are thoughtful but never laboured. The narrative drives the issues rather than the other way around.
Some of the most touching moments in Meat Market come from its depiction of teenage girls’ friendships. I was a teenager a long time before a lot of the fashions and technology that are commonplace in this book, but I recognise the intimacies that Dawson conveys. The intense love and support shared in adolescent friendship through girlhood takes pride of place in this book. For a work that is ostensibly a product of its time, Dawson manages to incorporate the timeless value of female solidarity throughout.
This book is also just downright funny. I haven’t laughed out loud this much while reading in a very long time. Much of the humour comes from Dawson’s acute observations of characters. At one point, Jana describes a fashionista she comes across as looking like she had: “coated herself in superglue and sprinted through Camden market”. I read this and instantly knew I had walked past this person on a fashionable street in London at some point in my life. I realised that she was probably on her way to a fashion agency.
The main vehicle for how well this book works is how expertly the character of Jana is drawn. I often find books written in a vernacular a little grating. However, after the first page or so I fall in love with Jana and her accent, south London vowels and all. There are several moments that, objectively, are a little far-fetched. In part this is probably the nature of the industry that is being dissected. However, the ending is downright improbable and far too ‘happily-ever-after’. At this point though, I am beyond caring. I am invested enough in Jana and her world to accept and enjoy it.
Meat Market is published by Quercus and is available now.
The first image is a headshot of Juno Dawson in black and white. The second image is the book cover which is filled by a photo of a teenage girl with hair back staring straight-faced into the camera. Partly covering her face is the book’s title in glittering capital letters. The author’s name is at the bottom of the book cover in yellow.