The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
With her electric debut novel, Lindsey Lee Johnson has skilfully teased out the everyday dramas that exist in ‘The Most Dangerous Place on Earth’: high school. Set in one of the world’s wealthiest communities – Mill Valley, California – Johnson’s novel opens with an epigraph from Milton’s Paradise Lost: ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.’ Here, in a neighbourhood rich in natural, cultural and material splendour, Johnson’s novel revolves around a class of students who we meet in the eighth grade. In the opening chapter, one student is bullied to the point of tragedy.
The Most Dangerous Place on Earth then follows these students over the course of four years, tracing the effect of this tragedy on their adolescent lives, with the point of view alternating chapter by chapter. It’s a remarkably convincing constellation of voices – which Johnson handles with nuance and empathy, her prose clean and often coolly funny. For the majority of the novel, the students are 17, and each vignette explores the everyday dramas of their complex interior lives: exam pressure, inappropriate student-teacher relationships, controlling parents, absent parents, drugs, sex, house parties, and, through it all, technology. It comes alive with each account of teenage worlds played out on the internet – Johnson’s writing is strongest when it takes on these forms. Texts, clickbait ‘news’ articles and social media streams spark on the page, and elicit a sense of unease that makes it impossible to put this novel down.
Interspersed between chapters, we return to the students’ young English teacher, Molly Nicoll, who desperately wants to connect with her class. This adult perspective, and the cast of parents and teachers littered throughout, enables Johnson to skilfully demonstrate the fraught power dynamic between and among adults and teenagers. A smart, tightly-paced read perfect for fans of recent releases like Marlena and Girls on Fire.