In Sheri Reynolds’ humanistic tale of love, a teenage girl struggles to cope with her bourgeoning sexuality and in the process discovers an inevitable commonality that makes up her fractured makeshift family. Kenny Luogo would never have imagined that she would hate being a girl, the desire to be like a boy coming so thick and fast in her life. Since the days of her youth, Kenny has known that she’s somehow different, forced to hide from her classmates and even drink copious amounts of water at home so that when the time comes she doesn’t have to go to the toilet at school “where there’s no place on earth worse than the girl’s bathroom.”
Kenny can little afford to leave her troubles behind or even live in an in-between space where troubles can't find you. For all of her courage, she’s had her share of hard knocks: a mother who died of cancer and a father incarcerated for smuggling crack cocaine hidden in the back of a removal van.
Denial is not an option, although lately Kenny’s next-door neighbor Jarvis Stanley seems be haunting much of Kenny’s life and the ghost of the dead girl Clara Tinsley, who Jarvis accidentally shot when she and her friend were breaking into his house. The remnants of her blood and brains are still splattered everywhere.
Luckily, Kenny is supported by Aunt Glo, but Aunt Glo has her own problems. Forced to shoulder many of the financial burdens, Aunt Glo tries to support Kenny along with her ramshackle, extended family: Tim-Tim, Quincy, and Daphne, her adorable granddaughter and the only thing in this world that keeps her attached to her firstborn, Constance, who is HIV-positive and flew the family coop years ago.
While Aunt Glo finds comfort looking through her microscope and perusing her little pleasures, like designing fake fingernails to wear when she goes out dancing, Kenny tries to sort through the confusion of her developing sexuality by walking to the carnival grounds.
Here in solace, Kenny imagines that she’s “a robot who walks around inside a comic book and doesn’t even know it” and hides her
girlhood by tightening the ACE bandage she straps around her chest. She hates her breasts more than anything, wrapping them as tight as she can stand it, hoping against hope that her “tits will turn black and fall off in her sleep.”
With worries that if Aunt Glo goes off the deep end “I’ll have no rights to Quin and Daphne at all,” there
are always thoughts of the wayward Constance and her HIV to remind Kenny of how bad things can get. Adding to the confusing mix is Tim-Tim’s new girlfriend, Sneaky, who with her “thick black eyeliner, and her curly dark permanent” steadily reveals her crush on Kenny. But it’s not just the wiles of Sneaky that Kenny must deal with. There’s also her best friend, Wendy Honeycutt, “a frog-eyed girl with long blonde hair” who confuses Kenny with her strange and confusing comments about her “lifestyle” even when she says she would never judge her.
No matter how hard Kenny works, the thoughts seem to come on her: the images of dead Clara Tinsley in pantyhose, memories of oranges and how they burst when you bite into them. At one stage, Kenny even likens herself to a fish swimming around with eyes and mouth wide open, “water rushing inside me but flowing back out through my gills.” Meanwhile, Aunt Glo still hankers to see Kenny’s father in person, nagging Kenny to visit him in prison even though he more or less ruined Kenny’s life and left her here a “sicko,” treating her even less like the son he never had.
The drama in The Sweet In-Between comes from the small intimate moments as Kenny and her extended family act out their dilemmas with a spirit of tenderness and a certain bitter-sweet poignancy. Kenny proves to be a wise and prudent narrator, never mean-spirited even when
she tries to rise to the challenges of being “different.” A rather nostalgic reflection on how life is shaped, this novel is about the patterns of life and how well you navigate it even when everything seems unbearable and makes so little sense. Sheri Reynolds’ talent is that she is able to lace Kenny’s internal and external conflicts with a
broad ironic humor, imbuing her narrative with innocence and candor while also showing how Kenny’s capacity for love can endure no matter the cost.