Reviewed by Emily Ford
Nestled Among the Hedges of a park sits an almost fourteen-year-old girl. Cocooned in her newfound safe space, Soon finds herself in a world she created. Here, she is free from school and all it entails: mean teachers who force her into group projects and girls that say she looks like a marshmallow. For a while each day Soon can forget about marshmallows and ever changingness of become a young woman, and she can forget about home, for a while too. With a brother who hasn’t visited since he left, her house feels bigger, emptier than she ever remembers it being before. At least when they lived in an apartment there was always noise and people on the staircases. Each day Soon makes the thirty-minute walk to her hideaway, hiding away from nurses and mothers who look twice her way. How does an almost fourteen-year-old skip school for over a month? Would the school not call her parents, or shouldn’t they notice a daughters lie? But each day Soon comes home with more knowledge and questions. “I learned it in school”, she says, or “my music teacher taught me this”. But her new knowledge and questions come from a man she met in her hideaway over forty years her senior. Old Man wears the same nice suit and silk socks everyday but never has to work or pay taxes. First, he sits with her a few minutes a day that becomes half an hour, an hour, and soon he sits with her most of her day. He talks terribly too much and becomes embarrassed, changing the subject then making an excuse to run off. But he comes back each day.
Soon is not stupid and knows to be wary of older men and strangers. But the two strike up a friendship that evolves into sharing snacks and soda while he talks about birds and Nina Simone. Those are the only two things Old Man talks about. But he is without a doubt not stupid either, because he knows so much information even if those are his only two topics. There is something childlike about Old Man, unlike the other men Soon’s encountered – the “dangerous ones”. But if the park maintenance workers find her spot, or Old Man sharing her spot, they are bound to report it to another adult, right? And soon the secrets of Old Man’s past would come out, the ones that would be of serious concern to Soon’s parents, but as these secrets rise, the clock is ticking. It has been many weeks since Soon has been in school, and the weather is growing colder. In Soon’s tangling set of lies, something must give. Two outcasts, a forty-year age difference, society’s assumptions, and an “inappropriate” relationship. Just who is this man, and why must he be friends with Soon?
Spanish author Sara Mesa’s latest work Among the Hedges is a profound fiction novel that allows readers to explore society and ideas of “appropriate” relationships. In a much realer sense, she makes you question what is an “appropriate” relationship? What about an “inappropriate” relationship? What defines either of them? Society deems a relationship between a man and a girl immediately inappropriate, especially given a large age gap. With connotations of dangerous desires he must harbor, Mesa contributes new, unsettling conversations to her audience, like is it okay for these characters to be friends? If so, who deems it acceptable? The young girl? Her parents? Society? Each reader is pushed to form their own opinion of what they consider is right and investigate why they reach such conclusions in this novel. With short chapters and sparse prose Mesa details the innocence of children and the imbalance of power gender and age create.
Among the Hedges wants to be read with questions: questions of relationships, parenting, societal norms, and men. Questions like what is wrong with the Old Man, because there must be something deeper, darker that he wants or something wrong with him to befriend a young girl.