I originally read this young adult novel as a nineteen year old creative writing student. Having fond memories of it, I picked it up when I saw it in a second-hand bookstore and very much enjoyed reading it again as an adult.
The Australian novel
Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr tells the story of Anna Duncan. She is an ordinary, sports-loving, seventeen year old until the day a tragic accident changes her life forever. Anna acquires permanent injuries after being involved in a car crash while driving home from a karate tournament with her boyfriend.
Challenges in recovery
The aftermath of this terrible accident is dealt with realistically and sensitively throughout the book. Anna has to deal with many challenges in her rehabilitation. She has to learn to face constant physical pain. She also has to adjust to a reality of doctors, physiotherapists, counselors, mobility aids and changes to her study plans. Although most readers would not have faced such circumstances, for those who have endured similar experiences due to their own disabilities this part of the book is very relatable.
Identity is an important theme in the book. Anna thinks she will make a full recovery, but then finds she will never again be able to participate in karate, the sport she loves. She thinks her identity is tied up in her sporting achievements and now feels no real worth. Mistakenly, she believes if her outer body is broken, her spirit is broken too. The title
Peeling the Onion refers to her realisation she has to shed the outer layers of her identity to find who she really is on the inside. She writes a poem she slowly redrafts which reflects her changing understanding of who she is.
Despite the difficult subject matter, the book mostly stays on a hopeful note. Anna's world still holds joy and possibility. Her persistence and determination to get better remain strong. A supportive family and some good friends make her experience more bearable. Anna only briefly has serious depression, as it takes her some time to truly acknowledge the loss she has endured.
Anna's friendships and relationships alter in ways that are both positive and negative. She loses some people who were important to her but the friendships that endure become solid. The novel shows the way car accidents can deeply affect family and friends as well as the victim.
Her developing relationship with her mum's employee Luke adds a deeply life-affirming element to the book. Luke is strongly attracted to Anna and can see what a special person she is, even when she cannot. He is a supportive friend and as their relationship grows, helps her to build a new and positive future.
Peeling the Onion explores emotions and challenges that many people with a disability experience. It acknowledges that worth as a person is not based on what is on the outside. Although some of us may look different our feelings are the same as what most people experience. The novel shows that even though we may be different in some ways we can build a positive life for ourselves.