Let's not beat around the bush - the "forbidden" of the title refers to incest. Between teenagers. The taboo that normally results in the immediate knee-jerk horrified reaction. In this way, it reminded me of Lolita - another book meant to disturb the reader, which is the point. And its sadness reminded me of another story of a consensual but doomed love - Brokeback Mountain.
"Yet that’s who we’ve become. Two people in love."
The doomed love between 16-year-old Maya and her 17-year-old brother Lochan is NOT ever depicted in the alluring "forbidden fruit" way. I would have thrown it across the room had it done that in the sick voyeristic way that is popular with fanfiction nowadays. But this book does not EVER stoop to that level. I cannot imagine readers wanting to ever find themselves in a similar situation as these two kids end up in. If anything, Forbidden is a cautionary tale of the consequences of letting yourself experience the emotions that go against societal conventions, against its deep and ingrained taboos.
"Yet the one kind of love that will never be allowed hasn’t even crossed her mind. The one love so disgusting and taboo, it isn’t even included in a conversation about illicit relationships."
To clarify my own stand on this - I have ZERO problem with any kind of sexual relationship between consenting adults, no matter whether I agree with their chosen practice or not. It's not my business to judge. However, Tabitha Suzuma, as though anticipating my "whatevs" attitude takes it a step further and makes it harder to stomach by replacing the 'consenting adults' with 'consenting teenagers'. In our society hell-bent on protecting our children this makes a difference, doesn't it? (Additionally, I've learned that consensual incest EVEN BETWEEN ADULTS is a crime punishable by prison sentence in England. Really tough luck for Lochan and Maya here).
"We haven’t done anything wrong! How can love like this be called terrible when we’re not hurting anyone?"
The incest part surely grabs the readers' attention - that's the point of breaking a taboo, innit? (See, I can so use my Britishisms!) But I could not let it overshadow the background in which it occurs. Because this book is not about incest alone - it is about the horror and dread of abandonment, fear, and despair. It is about the pain of children forced to take on the roles for which they are not yet prepared.
Lochan and Maya's closeness is in part due to the shared responsibility of playing the parental role to their three younger siblings, who need these two teens to serve the role of parents, and yet often resent them for doing so. The five Whitely children have been abandoned by their father shortly after divorce, and their alcoholic promiscuous flighty and resentful mother is pretty much completely absent from their lives. Lochan and Maya desperately attempt to keep their family together and not lose each other to foster homes, but they are beginning to crack under the struggle of responsibility to keep the crumbling façade of normalcy in their family. And their forbidden love is making things even harder, adding a terrible fear of discovery and, of course, family break-up and imprisonment.
Lochan is fully resigned to being a surrogate father to the three little siblings, and never even contemplates running away from this responsibility. But he is already in the place where he is about to crack. He is extremely lonely, suffering from crippling social anxiety, with his sister being his only friend. His siblings, especially Kit in his teenage cruelty, begin to resent him stepping into the father role. His mother denigrates him at every moment she's actually there. Maya, a friendly and sweet girl, is the only person who is keeping Lochan together while replacing the absent mother for the younger children.
My heart was breaking for these teenagers. For them taking on the roles they were not prepared for, for this responsibility stripping them of their childhood and forcing them to be parents. I was so incredibly angry at their mother who would have seemed caricaturish to me if I haven't seen real life people behaving in the same despicable fashion to their kids (spend some time in pediatric ER and you'll be amazed and horrified). To say these kids are messed up is an understatement. They are biting off way more than they can chew, and they are doing it with such ADULT resignation and determination that I almost cried. At their age they are old enough for the responsibility - but as teenagers they also need the luxury of being self-centered and taken care of - the luxury they don't have. They are expected to be parents at home and regular ordinary teenagers at school. They are caught in the middle, unable to make everyone happy. No wonder they have no one else to turn to besides each other.
But at the same time, Suzuma does not let the reader off the uncomfortable hook by attributing Lochan and Maya's forbidden love only to the loneliness and abandonment by the adults (the situation which we can righteously shrug off as the last resort of messed up children). She brings in the true feelings of love and longing and desire - which we would applaud if only these two did not happen to share quite a bit of their DNA.
‘So nothing is taboo any more?’ I interrupt. ‘You’re saying there are no two people who, if they love each other enough, should be forced apart?’
And to make it more explicit, Suzuma asks an uncomfortable question - what IS wrong with love between these consenting teenagers? Is it right to judge them? Who are they hurting with their little stolen moments of happiness? What is the point of our taboo, our instinctive "ewwwww!"? In a society that came to (often grudgingly) accept the "less conventional" forms of love, why are we as a society so uncomfortable with this situation and hell-bent on denying love to these young people? And no, "because it's icky" and "ewww" are not the valid answers to this question. Shouldn't we just let people be?
This book does not condone incest as much as it condemns being judgmental and intolerant, and the fear and misery resulting from such attitudes. This is a book about abandonment and crippling loneliness in a broken environment. This is the book about the precarious balance of love and responsibility. It takes the uncomfortable and sensitive subject and treats it with respect and tactfulness, avoiding most possible pitfalls save for quite a bit of melodramaticism.
Is this book perfect? No, far from it. But it's brave and gutsy - especially for a YA book (it must be meant for mature teenagers), and for this I enjoyed it. It pushes the "agenda" of love and tolerance, and that's one of the few agendas that I don't mind. For all of this I will give it 4 stars, easily glossing over its faults.