Anatomy of a Girl Gang by Ashley Little

Local Harvest: Books, Reviews


Local Harvest

The underbelly of Vancouver is as vivid as it is gritty, as dangerous as it is beautiful, as delicate as it is hard, and no one knows this better than the five members of the Black Roses. This is Anatomy of a Girl Gang: a vivid world of ragged hope, terrible consequences, and unlikely joy.

It starts with a black eye.

They tried to get me to do it first. I flat out refused, our narrator explains. This is how we meet Mac: the first and toughest, still embroiled in another Vancouver gang. Mercy worked East Cordova for two nights. The second night she got home, the side of her face looked like a grated eggplant.

The idea strikes.

That’s about when I realized the Vipers didn’t really give a solid fuck about us. They weren’t our family, they weren’t our friends, they were just using us like everyone else.
You know what? Fuck this shit. This is over. This ends. Now.

And so the Black Roses are born: Vancouver’s first and only all-girl gang. Mac, the original gangster, the leader, and Mercy, a Punjabi princess with a gift for theft, are the inaugural members, seeking a better life than their current gang can give them. They quickly recruit others, and the gang blooms into full colour. Kayos, a high-school drop-out with an education in fists and speed. Sly Girl, who thought anywhere would be better than her reserve, and landed deep in the middle of the Downtown Eastside drug trade. Z, a graffiti artist who paints Vancouver black with roses until the whole city knows their name.

Through the Black Roses, these lost teenagers assert their strength, refuse to let themselves be taken advantage of because of their age or their gender, and create something wholly their own — something honest and true in intention if not in action, something bright and optimistic in its own dark, thorny way. They build a new life for themselves despite all odds, using scavenged scraps of hope and opportunity and relying on their own determination to carry them through. Creating the gang is an act of survival and creation — the tale of Robinson Crusoe set in downtown Vancouver.

But this gang story, as all gang stories, is anguishing to read. As hopeful and as brilliant and as tough as these girls are, they can never be hopeful and brilliant and tough enough to obscure the fact that the gang grants them temporary power, at best. The gang may be their best option, and it may be their only option, but they are nevertheless throwing their lives away. Despite their determination and fearlessness, only one of the Black Roses makes it out alive.

This novel is a beautiful collage of impressions and dreams, switching between the girls’ perspectives every page or two. Best of all are the tiny, unexpected sections written from Vancouver’s perspective, which glow with the same hope and poetry that power each of the fierce, delicate Black Roses themselves. In these small excerpts we see the shining beauty of this gang – as well as the foreshadowing of its tragic, heartbreaking end.

The Blue-Black night folds into me, and the people of my city search for sleep, Vancouver writes. Some find it on waterbeds, futons, goose-down feather mattresses; others in parkades, stairwells, dark doorways, shining alleys. Still others don’t look for sleep at all, but something else entirely. Something necessary and familiar. They hunt through the night, bleary-eyed, fervent, skin glowing green under the buzzing streetlights, moaning into the wind like hungry ghosts.