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BookBrowse Reviews The Agony of Bun O'Keefe by Heather Smith

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The Agony of Bun O'Keefe

by Heather Smith

The Agony of Bun O'Keefe by Heather Smith X
The Agony of Bun O'Keefe by Heather Smith
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2017, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2019, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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Little Miss Sunshine meets Room in this quirky, heartwarming story of friendship, loyalty and discovery.

It is nearly impossible to not be affected by the hurt and horrors that Bun O'Keefe has been through.

The Agony of Bun O'Keefe is a captivating, poignant, emotionally devastating, yet hopeful young adult novel that begins when Bun's 300-pound hoarder mother orders her to leave their junk-laden house, the only home she's known all of her 14 years. Wandering the streets of St. John's, Newfoundland in Canada, she has nowhere to go until she happens upon a guitarist. Because her mother is the only person she has ever actually interacted with, Bun has wide gaps in her understanding of social interaction. For instance, she doesn't call people by their names but, instead, simply by their most distinguishing features, so the guitarist she meets becomes Busker Boy. Later she gets to know his roommates: Chef, who cooks at a hotel and goes to culinary school; Chris/Cher, a kindly cross dresser; Big Eyes, who wants a new identity for herself; and Dragon Man, their cruel landlord.

Heather Smith keeps Bun's journey of self-discovery grounded in the real world, steeped in the late 1980s, with references to President Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Duran Duran, to name a few. No large or sudden revelations rise from the pages of The Agony of Bun O'Keefe. Instead, this is a story of a make-shift family trying to get by in their daily lives, welcoming Bun into their fold, and helping her become acquainted with the ways of the world. The newness of every little thing she encounters forces us, the readers, to focus consciously on what we take for granted. For instance, Bun doesn't always grasp the meaning of words in conversations, which her new roommates alternately find funny and frustrating, and so she rewinds conversations in her head as they happen, to analyze what was just said, before she continues.

But this story is not just about Bun learning to face the world. There is tragedy in the household; social injustice that is explored: racism toward Busker Boy, who is an indigenous Canadian, and the specter of AIDS hanging over another character because of his heartbreaking recent history.

These plot points are explored subtly – so subtly, in fact, that the reader is caught off-guard, and has to flip back to the previous page to be sure. Smith captures these moments beautifully. They feel true and it is easy to relate to them. We, like Bun and her family, live each day aware that anything can happen at any time. And when it does, we react, try to shake off the bad, and attempt to move on.

Throughout The Agony of Bun O'Keefe, there's the unshakeable hope that Bun can find what she wants in life and also find her place in the world, and the story is excellent for teen readers who are wondering exactly the same things. It's a daunting journey, but not impossible. Let Bun O'Keefe guide the way.

Reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2017, and has been updated for the April 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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