On Pointe, and in Limbo

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Martha Schabas’ Various Positions is an excellent novel about performance anxiety and sexual development disguised as a young adult novel.

There’s a particular formula for the best of the coming of age YA lit novel, especially if your protagonist is a prodigy. Take one part precocious young woman, bright yet perhaps a little emotionally underdeveloped (the not-quite-ripe emotional state is the key ingredient for empathy.) Drop said protagonist into a world of adult circumstances—undue emotional and physical turmoil, interpersonal relationships to negotiate, and at the end of the tunnel, a prize that is worth fighting for. And finally, add a smidge of sexual tension—the best kind? The tension that makes itself known for the first time—the first ache of palpable, heart-pounding desire.

Now drop all of this turmoil formula into the setting of a prestigious ballet academy. And damn if the formula doesn’t sweep you off your beribboned feet.

The world of Martha Schabas’s addictive debut novel, Various Positions, takes full advantage of the YA genre and yet transforms it into a meditation on performance anxiety. Schabas’s protagonist, the lovely yet tentative Georgia, is only fourteen years old when she is accepted into the royal Toronto Ballet Academy. Her world is starting to crumble, her parents on the painfully silent verge of a divorce, and so Georgia dives into ballet. It is the only place where her body makes sense to her, and she comes off as deeply asexual, nervously dabbing on some lipstick for her audition headshot, unfamiliar with its sticky weight. But as soon as her classes begin, sex seems to be all that matters: as her instructor, Roderick, sets his students against each other, they conduct full-on psychological warfare with comments on each other’s bodies. All the while, Georgia becomes more and more drawn to her hard-to-impress teacher, pushing herself both in the practice room and in her mind.

There is, of course, an explicit subtext that looms over Various Positions, one that Georgia’s grad student stepsister is happy to elucidate by way of her thesis on “abjection”:

In a patriarchal society, a person has to abject the female body—you know, turn against it—in order to achieve selfhood. It’s kind of like Freud’s Oedipal thing, but earlier, because we all come from a female body so that body is the first threat to a person’s independence in a patriarchal world. But if you’re a woman, it gets really complicated because, well, you’re basically rejecting yourself.

Based on the forced introduction of this subject, we’re meant to see Georgia’s budding sexuality—and self-conscious development of that sexuality—as a way of turning against herself. Were this strictly a ballet book, the reading is uncomplicated: the desire to tame the body’s impulses by beating it into submission. Schabas gets the details of that world just right: the bruised and battered feet; carefully arched arms, ribcages, and hipbones; and the attention to each hair that slips from a tight bun. These are the little details that would drive Georgia mad, even if impending sex weren’t an issue. Yet by juxtaposing the extreme body awareness of the dancer with the nervousness of sexual maturity makes each moment in Georgia’s head deeply troubling. If there’s a whiff of Black Swan in this novel, it doesn’t come from any Sapphic friend or lecherous teacher (though Roderick’s motives are murkily defined throughout). Instead, it comes from the nervous uncertainty with which Georgia explores her own desires. In one especially creepy scene, she stares at a fellow subway traveler, her eyes taking in details to help her imagine what he might want to do to her. Just as she imagines him leaning her up against the subway divider, his eyes snap upward. “He was suspicious now, I was sure of it . . . again, we were staring at each other, but it was the expression on his face this time that made it unbearable. He was smiling at my slyly, telling me I’d been caught.”

Whether or not you’re put off by Georgia’s explorations, or drawn in with a mix of fascination and fear, is the great achievement of Schabas’ tale. The author’s formal education in ballet may have ended after childhood, but the details she has retained, both of the dance and of the emotions it provoked, are sharp as glass. The story contained in Various Positions is performed with grace and aplomb, and leaves the reader utterly fouetté. Let this be only the first of Schabas’ bravura turns.

Jessica Freeman-Slade is a writer who reviews and blogs on book culture at The [TK] Review, and has written reviews for The Millions, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Specter Magazine, among others. She works as an editor at Random House and lives in Morningside Heights. More from this author →