Headlong: laser-fine YA novel about kids' friendships and escaping destiny from Kathe Koja

Kathe Koja is two of the finest writers I've ever read. Two, because she's had two careers: first as they doyenne of a lurid and literary horror subgenre they called "splatterpunk," a literary movement that she defined with books like The Cipher, which combined intensely poetic language and lavish grotesqueries.

Then there's the other Koja, the young adult writer whose debut YA, Straydog, showed us a very different kind of writer, whittled down to the bone, spare and simple like watching Astaire dance, books of deep alienation and hard redemption that made me remember exactly what it had been like to be a kid on the outside.

Kathe's a friend of mine, and I once lamented to her the loss of that first writer, the lavish and poetic Koja, and she said that she didn't really miss it, didn't plan on bringing those old splatterpunk books back into print (I immediately bought a second set of them used and carefully hoarded them). She then went on to describe the manifold rewards of writing for younger audiences, describing an experience so intense and rewarding that I ended up writing a young adult novel myself: Little Brother.

I've just finished reading Kathe's latest: Headlong, and now, it seems, Kathe Koja is just one writer again, a superb amalgam of the two Kojas I love to read so much.

Headlong is the story of Lily, a privileged girl at an exclusive prep school where she is a multigenerational legacy whose past and future are both utterly circumscribed by the expectations around her.

It is a good life, but it is not good to her. Lily isn't right for the life and the life isn't good for her, and she's trapped by it until Hazel arrives at her school. Hazel is an orphan, raised in New York by her brother who is now a successful photographer. Hazel is planning on flunking out of the school within a year, and her wildness opens something in Lily.

All this is told with many changes in time and point of view, and with the poetry that I remember from the first incarnation of Kathe Koja, but perfectly, perfectly synthesized with the second coming of Koja, spare and severe. These two voices, combined so well, become a laser for slicing open Koja's characters and revealing their souls in a series of explosive little scenes and sentences, each more evocative than the last.

You won't find a truer account of the oppressive weight of expectation and the liberating power of breaking free, rushing headlong into the dark and denying the safe and the known, nor of the intensity of adolescent friendship. Koja is one of the treasures of fiction, and of young adult fiction especially, and if you haven't read her, you really should.


See also:
* Kids' lit renaissance, don't miss Koja!
* Going Under: moving kids' novel


  1. gee! If I ever write anything I want you to review it. I’m not really fond of that genre but you genuinely piqued my interest.

  2. Funny. I used to read splatterpunk and I read Koja’s “Cipher” and “Bad Brains”, and I never would have put the two together. She could definitely conjure up some dread, but she didn’t seem to have the same focus on the gory details.

    To say that she defined the genre might be a bit of an overstatement…

  3. I second Takuan’s opinion of the review and am going to check this author out.

    I do have one question. Why would an author choose a title that’s already been used very recently on another relatively popular novel? In searches for a book called Headlong, you’ll probably always run into Michael Frayn’s (very good) book first. Why knowingly do that?

  4. The premise reminds me a bit of Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy – one of my all time favorites.

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