"I feel funny, like I might be walking around inside a comic book and not even know it," says Kenny, the quirky, taciturn teen smack in the middle of the multiple messes bubbling away in "The Sweet In-Between."
Her mom is dead, her dad is in prison and she lives with her dad's druggie girlfriend, Aunt Glo, and Glo's motley children in a rundown house in a gritty Virginia tidewater town.
Kenny (real name Kendra) is a shy, lanky tomboy who binds her bosom with Ace bandages and crops her hair, but isn't sure why. The kids at school think they know why, though, and they are relentlessly cruel.
She reacts by withdrawing, by working hard, by doing her best to shelter her little stepsister from ugliness (including a homicide next door) and by worrying day and night that she'll be homeless after high school when surely, she believes, Glo will throw her out.
Virginia novelist Sheri Reynolds ("The Rapture of Canaan") has crafted a fine coming-of-age novel. Kenny's pitch-perfect narrative is unsentimental, uncertain, fearful, witty and highly endearing.
Kenny doesn't have the words to describe how she feels -- at one point she awkwardly says she heard someone call her "gender-confused" -- but that confusion is not this story's prevailing wind. Rather, "The Sweet In-Between" is a subtle story of how people navigate adversity and an ode to complexity, both of character and of circumstance.
As in real life, things are always more complicated than they appear: Kenny's peers think they have her pegged, but she's not who they think she is. Glo pops painkillers and neglects her kids, but nonetheless loves them in a muddled way that feeds their souls. The town's poor people are not what we expect, nor are its rich people what they seem.
It is to Reynolds' credit that she does not over-describe or overexplain. The point of view is always Kenny's, and Kenny's viewpoint is always arresting. Like Pip, Huck, Holden and Scout, she's a young protagonist you'll not soon forget.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.