Stephanie Johnson, the main protagonist of Once Bad Intentions by Monique Dixon, is funny and smart, with a ferocious temper.
Any perceived slight is met with swift retribution, quickly cementing her reputation as someone not to mess with. At first, it seems like Stephanie is violent for violence’s sake, but an exploration of her family history shows where the seeds of self-destruction were sown. Her mother Sonya, left an abusive relationship with her father, only to enter into another with the local drug dealer, the lack of peace in her relationships causes Sonya to continue the cycle of abuse directed toward her daughters for infractions large or small. Being the most spirited of her siblings, Stephanie is the main recipient of the punishments. The outlet for her frustration is her diary in which she pours out her desire for a more peaceful life where she’s not constantly at war with others and herself. But, it’s not enough and before long Stephanie reaches crisis point and has to decide how she is going to live the rest of her life.
Once Bad Intentions could be written off as just another story about a troubled teen caught up in the trappings of violence and petty crime. But, I like how the novel not only brought insight into Stephanie’s behaviour but also sought her redemption into a responsible adult. The novel by no means excuses her violence or petty crimes but makes it clear that she has a choice in everything she does, and the consequences that follow are as a direct result of her choices. I also enjoyed the novel’s mixture of British Black humour and melodrama. There are several scenes that aren’t funny in reality, but the way Dixon wrote them had me laughing out loud. One example, Stephanie and her sister escape a beating from their mother by jumping out of the window, only for the sister to turn back to Stephanie’s dismay and face the inevitable music.
Even at her worst, Stephanie is a likeable and sympathetic character. I found myself rooting for her especially when she clashed with her mother. The way Sonya is written it’s potentially easy to dismiss her as just a bad parent. Though it is obvious she has unresolved issues, Dixon never fully explores what the cause of her issues are which made reading those scenes all the more unsettling. The major bright spot in this novel comes when Stephanie falls in love with Tyrone, signifying a major turning point in her life. For the first time, she’s able to see that she can love and be loved in return by someone who accepted her for who she was, and most importantly saw who she could be.
Reading Once Bad Intentions I was reminded of novels by Alex Wheatle’s Brixton Rock and Courttia Newland’s The Scholar and The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah, which were also set in the 1990s, making for a nostalgic reading experience. Like these classic YA novels, Once Bad Intentions makes for a thoughtful and intimate portrayal of a young person trying to find and establish their place in the world.
Read TBB’s interview with Monique Dixon, author of Once Bad Intentions here.
Once Bad Intentions is available to buy from popular online book retailers.