THE PLOT: ‘Who Put This Song On?’ by Morgan Parker is a young-adult novel about a Black teenager with depression. Recovering from a “meltdown” during the summer holidays, the protagonist (Morgan) is starting the final year of her super-Christian school whilst navigating therapy and medication. Her old best friend has abandoned her so she joins a group of misfits. But as she goes through the trials and tribulations of dating boys, misunderstandings with her parents and religious cum low-key racist teachers, she’s afraid to open up about the true extent of her depression to her new friends and struggles to accept herself.
RATING: This book started well but I got bored towards the end. The themes of mental health and depression drew me in, and I connected to the main character as she struggled to be an “alternative” Black girl in a predominantly white area. Loosely based on the author’s diaries, it’s set in 2008 against a backdrop of emo music and Barack Obama winning the US presidency which reminded me of my own teenage days. However, the book became repetitive and didn’t really go anywhere. I think this is partly because it’s autobiographical so there wasn’t a central conflict or plot to pull the reader through.
GOOD BITS: This book reminded me of my angsty teenage diaries, which I loved. As an “oreo” or “coconut” or whatever you want to call me, I hardcore related to the main character’s struggle to assert her blackness in a white world. I am particularly interested in mental health featuring Black characters and I felt the portrayal was both sensitive and realistic. In addition to this, I liked the use of different formats (classroom notes, emails, diary entries, song titles), the secondary characters/friendship dynamics and how the main character questioned religion and her white-washed school curriculum.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: I think the central problem with this book is that the stakes weren’t high enough. The novel opens with heavy allusions to a suicide attempt that has just taken place. However, the novel never feels like life or death. We know that the main character will not complete suicide and it’s generally accepted that she will go to college at the end of the book. So, even though the description of depression is heart-wrenching, I was never truly worried for the main character and I didn’t wonder what would happen next. I also think depression is very passive, which makes it a difficult central hook to sustain a narrative.
Perhaps if the main character wasn’t a straight “A” student yet still had a goal to get into college (despite the odds), there would be more of a question about her future that would keep the reader guessing. This might not work as the main character is very listless as a by-product of their diagnosis, but I feel a tension between a long-term goal that is impacted by her mental health (e.g. getting into college even though she doesn’t get great grades) could’ve been a central thread to bring it all together.
Finally, I was upset that we never got a description of / scene with the suicidal event that happens before the novel opens. This event is a crucial moment that worries Morgan’s parents, scares her brother and tears her apart from her best friend. This event is a huge part of the novel’s hook and I kept waiting to “see” the scene in reported speech or flashback. It was disappointing that the reader never experiences that crucial moment.
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of ‘Am I Normal Yet?’ by Holly Bourne, ‘Purge: Rehab Diaries’ by Nicole J. Johns, or ‘Saved!’ (the seminal 00’s movie with Mandy Moore). The author is a poet and this is her debut novel, which I think accounts for a lot of my issues with it. I’d be interested to read her poetry but I’d need to be assured of more plot and pacing to invest in a whole novel.