“They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”
On 12 January, 1830, the last instance of capital punishment in Iceland occurred when Friðrik Sigurðsson and Agnes Magnúsdóttir were executed in Vatnsdalshólar in Húnavatnssýsla, for the murder of two men.
While often painted as “monstrous”, a cold-blooded murderer, a figure of Lady Macbeth style ruthlessness - the truth is that there is a dearth of factual information about Agnes Magnusdottir. While the instrument of her execution – a broad axe – has been preserved, little is known about the life of the woman sentenced to death, and publicly beheaded. (A third person was also convicted: Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, whose sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment).
“They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.”
Burial Rites is the product of a ten year quest to uncover what remains of Agnes Magnusdottir’s life. Instigated by an exchange visit to Iceland after high school, Hannah Kent spent the ensuing years absorbed in intense archival research, examination of primary sources and retracing of Agnes’ steps from her birth to her final resting place. Kent called the result a “speculative biography”, a weave of fact and fiction, and her own “dark love letter to Iceland.”
While Burial Rites presents the question of whether history has misrepresented Agnes, the novel does not necessarily demand sympathy for her. It does, however, offer a more empathetic, albeit ambiguous, portrayal of a woman condemned – and an attempt to understand what circumstances might have led to her conviction in a double murder.
The result is an exquisitely beautiful novel. Kent’s prose is rich and clear, rendering the melancholic, claustrophobic atmosphere of the Icelandic winter and Agnes’ impending execution in evocative language. Agnes herself, awaiting death and exiled at the farm of a minor public servant, emerges from the pages vividly.
“Those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it. I am barren; nothing will grow from me anymore. I am the dead fish drying in the cold air. I am the dead bird on the shore. I am dry, I am not certain I will bleed when they drag me out to meet the axe. No, I am still warm, my blood still howls in my veins like the wind itself, and it shakes the empty nest and asks where all the birds have gone, where have they gone?”
Kent writes with a kind of graceful maturity, a depth of emotion that befits the subject matter. This a story about a woman facing her imminent death, a woman with one final opportunity to speak her truth, and Kent captures the desperation, isolation and grief of Agnes with stunning clarity. The book is interspersed with Agnes’ inner monologues, and these sections are the most vivid; pouring forth in a steam of raw psychological pain and striking imagery.
Though she spent much of her life employed as a servant and a period of her childhood as an orphaned pauper thrown on the mercy of the parish, there is evidence to suggest that Agnes was also an intelligent and highly literate woman. And this is the version of Agnes that Kent chooses to portray; beneath the hard and icy veneer of a woman reviled and silenced, she is compelling, passionate and astute.
While living and working alongside Jón Jónsson and his family, fragments of Agnes’ story begin to emerge. As she confides in Tóti, the young assistant priest commissioned to reconcile her to her fate and to God, Agnes’ version of events takes shape as the remaining days of her life pass. Through this gradual unwinding, Tóti and the family come to confront the idea that the truth may not be all that it seems. While we already know how Agnes’ story ends, it’s this suggestion of dissonance between public opinion and her personal reality that fuel the novel’s tension. Burial Rites suggests that truth is open to interpretation, and is rarely as straightforward as commonly perceived. Fear, gossip and hatred twist the idea of Agnes into something horrifying and loathsome; an opinion no doubt perpetuated by the pervasive social, religious and sexual politics of the time.
To this end, Kent’s novel faithfully depicts life in 19th century Iceland, and is immersed in historical detail without the narrative being weighed down or bloated. It is clear that care has been taken to accurately represent the conditions of Agnes’ world, to reconstruct the framework of her life with as much integrity as possible. The gaps in historical record, which Kent has fleshed out with fiction, fit seamlessly within the broader context of time and place, resulting in a story that respects its origins.
We cannot know the entirety of Agnes Magnusdottir’s story, but Burial Rites asks us to remember her, if not reconsider how history may have buried her own truth with her body. Knutur Oskarsson, who accommodated Hannah Kent during part of the writing and research of the novel, stated: “I do believe that the execution of Agnes is still an unhealed wound in Iceland, in the history of Iceland.”
Burial Rites is a respectful and moving acknowledgment of that wound; a reminder that Agnes Magnusdottir’s voice once existed, even if it was lost to time. (less)
Few books manage to make me feel this way: cut open and broken and completely overcome.
It’s difficult to talk about K...more“Love doesn’t always look nice.”
Few books manage to make me feel this way: cut open and broken and completely overcome.
It’s difficult to talk about Kuehn’s debut in detail without revealing significant plot points; and I do feel this is a book best experienced as it is structured, that is, allowing the story to unwind from Andrew/Win gradually. His narrative is one of violence and blood and glimpses in between shadows, trauma layered deep in shame and visceral pain. His story emerges in fragments between the past and present, reality and dreams, relentlessly gaining clarity until its devastating climax.
Kuehn has written a brilliant novel. It is confronting, yet empathetic. Heartbreaking, but affirming. It’s not an easy story to tell - Kuehn delves deep into disturbing places – but it is compelling and evocative. Through the use of rich imagery, the symbolism of chemistry and Win’s distinct cognition, Kuehn has written a novel that spurns straightforward classification. It seems to be one thing, but becomes another – not because Kuehn is being purposefully evasive or coy, but because this is the story that is true to Win. We read it as he experiences it, as it emerges from the recesses of his mind and body: raw, dark, and animal.
There are various forms of conflict in the novel, but the central source is from within Win himself, and what he believes to be inevitable. The present day thread of the story deals with Win’s acceptance of his imminent change: that his Ego and Superego will be devoured by his ferocious Id, that what is at his core is monstrous. It’s this internal wrestling of what a person believes themselves to be, and what they want to be, that forms the crux of the novel. For Win, his deep-seated convictions give this battle an element of finality, that his metamorphosis is not only brewing, but inescapable.
For all its twisting decent into horror, Charm & Strange is a compassionate novel, and while it doesn’t offer all the answers, it does extend a glimpse of hope. Even more than that, it provides a voice of understanding. And for readers who can connect with Win’s experience, the importance of this can’t be overstated. Much has been made of “darkness” in YA, but (to paraphrase Patrick Ness), “not engaging with darkness in fiction is abandoning teens to face it alone.” Charm & Strange is an important book because it offers support and solace to those who may feel beyond reach.
Kuehn’s writing is strong – she has created a complex, challenging novel in beautifully rendered language that is compelling and true to Win’s voice. There is a depth of emotion and pain articulated in the story without it feeling forced or consciously manipulative.
The novel tackles serious content respectfully, while being authentic to the experience of its teenage characters, who are flawed and complicated. Although not a lengthy book, Kuehn develops her characters well, choosing to show (rather than tell) the reader who they are through powerful scenes and flashbacks. There is a lot covered here, even outside the central premise of the novel, much of which Kuehn chooses to allude to rather than explicitly state. This is particularly effective in the early stages of the novel, where the reader needs to tease out the meaning from passages that seem to take a nebulous form between contemporary and paranormal.
Charm & Strange is an intense novel, darkly psychological and unsettling. It takes the reader on a troubling journey, and arrives in a profoundly moving place.
An advance reader copy of Charm & Strange was provided by the publisher via Netgalley. (less)
“This is the story of a wild girl and a ghost girl; a boy who knew nothing and a boy who thought he knew everything. And it’s about life and death and grief and romance. All the good stuff.”
..and Girl Defective does have these things. But for me, it isn't about those elements so much being about a girl finding her place in the world. As with Notes from The Teenage Underground, Simmone Howell does this beautifully: it’s real and organic and subtle. Within the framework of a flagging record store, an unconventional family, a lost girl and a charismatic one – another girl grows and changes. Girl Defective is not just about the things that change her, but the girl that is changed - her metamorphosis between the pages.
"Sometimes I’d see Dad look at my brother and feel the acid tang of jealousy in the back of my mouth. I’d flash on Gully at four saying, ‘I’m a boy and Dad’s a boy but Sky is a GIRL.’ And I’d feel cursed and isolated and defective."
Sky is a girl in transition. She’s not even sure if she fits in with her family of misfits: a father stuck in the past, a little brother who won’t take off his pig snout mask, and a mother who left her behind. She’s somewhere in between friendship and infatuation with the magnetic Nancy. A musician turned developer wants to build over St Kilda’s history and the place Sky calls home. Then there’s the quiet, short-sighted boy, spending nights pasting up pictures of a girl’s face on walls.
There is a palpable sense of place in Girl Defective, (I promise that’s not just my bias as a former St Kildan speaking), and Howell’s rendering of Melbourne’s seaside playground suburb is both affectionate and frank. Alongside the tourists attractions and crowds and the slow slide from bohemianism into gentrification, Howell also portrays the homelessness, sex work and drug abuse that are very much a part of St Kilda. It would be disingenuous to ignore the sharp socio-economic contrasts that characterise the area; that disadvantage and privilege exist side by side in glaring disparity.
It’s a setting that fits Girl Defective, a kind of warped urban fairground populated by artists and hacks, misfits and celebrities. The fanciful and the real are entwined here: underground parties are filled with girls in silver and boys in masks, while street workers hug the edges of Carlisle and Greeves Streets. A run-down record store clings to the glory days of the mix tape and pristine vinyl, while a window on Inkerman Street is filled with the ugly mugs of infamous curb-crawlers.
As with the location, Howell develops her characters with various shades. As one character later states, they are not “bad” people, but they are flawed and layered. Part of this story is about Sky discovering this fundamental truth, peeling back the different versions of themselves people present, and understanding what lies beneath.
At the heart of Girl Defective are these relationships, each of which have some bearing on Sky’s character development. Whether they are familial, romantic or platonic, the connections between the characters are engaging and nuanced. Howell addresses matters of loneliness and lust, alienation and alcoholism, manipulation and empathy. Yet this isn’t a heavy book. There’s a certain levity to story that balances its substantial content, and an artfulness to the writing that is intelligent and gorgeous to read.
"Kid, that was what she called me. Or little sister, or girlfriend, or dollbaby, or monkeyface. Sometimes she even used my name – Skylark, Sky – all in that drawl that felt like fingernails on my back lightly scratching itches I didn’t even know I had."
And then of course, there’s the music. (The lovely Mandee has put together a playlist for the book.) As befits a book with an iconic record store at its centre, music is woven through Girl Defective like an extension of the characters and setting, a soundtrack not only accompanies the plot, but feels integral to it.
"Late in the night, in the yoga light, I listened to Leonard Cohen but I didn’t have to coax the sadness out. His voice was a long tunnel with the tiniest pinprick of light at the end."
A unique coming-of-age story with a touch of mystery, a lot of character and full of heart, Girl Defective is indeed “all the good stuff.”
Reading that Rone's work played a part in inspiring Girl Defective felt almost serendipitous, given my own burgeoning obsession with his art. His posters and murals are highly recognisable, now appearing not only in Melbourne but around the world.
I'm not sure exactly what it is, but I think there is something a little haunting about Rone's 'girls' and their expressions. I don't know what their origin stories are, but I can't help but wonder if there are any lost girls among them...
Sometimes books just speak to you, and this one basically climbed into my ear and shouted.
* * * * *
“The last thing I see before falling asleep is t
...moreSometimes books just speak to you, and this one basically climbed into my ear and shouted.
* * * * *
“The last thing I see before falling asleep is the Kali painting on Skunk’s wall. Her blue-gold body is draped in equal parts flowers and severed heads – as if beauty and horror were interchangeable and what matters most is trusting in the dance.”
When it comes to what we talk about when we talk about mental illness, Wild Awake is a full-throated, primal shout in a sea of polite murmuring. It is a painful and joyous cry, unapologetically discordant, demanding to be heard. It begins with a phone call and ends with a view; in between it is a burst of cacophonous music that sounds like nothing else, and somehow exactly as it should.
When I sat down to write this review, I debated whether or not to lead with mental illness; because Kiri wouldn’t. Kiri doesn’t see the world or herself in terms of illness and wellness. The parameters of her world are not rigidly defined, they are yielding and permeable, allowing the real and the unreal to flow freely and spill over into each other.
This is less a novel about being mentally ill than it is about simply being, and understanding how to be.
So I could open with the writing: the words I want to crawl into, curl around, taste, savour. I could talk about how reading this novel is sometimes like limping over shards of glass in its incisiveness, sometimes like sinking into a lucid dream. As Kiri’s mental state unfurls against a backdrop of midnight bike rides, music, death and love, Smith articulates how it is both terrifying and seductive, and how it is possible to find something beautiful buried at the heart of so much pain.
Or I could talk about the characters: sharply drawn and as real as if they breathed within the pages, emerging from Smith’s prose fully formed and vital, beating with energy. About Kiri’s voice, the layers of humour and sadness and the insistent, urgent rhythm of her hypermanic spiral.
Or the vividness of Kiri’s world, a setting that’s as much a part of her as it is a physical place, streets and buildings made familiar with the passing of each page. The world that is carved out between Kiri, Skunk, Doug and Sukey and the spaces their memories and emotions inhabit.
But if you are looking for a straightforward, redemptive (and arguably reductive) narrative about mental illness that includes “affix Label A here” and “insert Medical Intervention here” and “cue Closure here” you might be disappointed in Wild Awake. This is simply not that book.
Wild Awake is not overly concerned with naming and defining things, rather it’s about experiences, how beauty and horror manifest in different lives, and how people respond and internalise them. Yet nor is it a flippant novel, glossing over the pain and fear that often accompany mental illness. And neither is it a prescriptive novel, assigning one viewpoint or choice in a blanket message. Instead, it is about uniqueness of experience, how no one will see the world exactly the same as another person, no one will hear exactly the same music as they go about their lives, everyone chooses a slightly different path.
“People like to think everything can be explained by chemistry.”
There is a telling line in the novel – during a conversation about whether Toilet Duck or Windex is more trustworthy – that references the tendency to attribute various human experiences to chemistry. This mentality informs much of our current dialogue around mental illness and medication, and our apparent need to reduce these to tangible terms we can easily understand. We call it a “chemical imbalance”, we say “you wouldn’t criticise someone with [insert physical illness] for taking medication..” in an effort to justify and explain. This is not inherently wrong, but it is a limited, narrow view through which to approach the subject of mental illness. It’s part of the story, but not the whole; just one position on an entire spectrum of interpretation.
It’s difficult to talk about life-affirming novels without spouting clichés, but there is something validating about Wild Awake without it voiding the very real grief and darkness it contains within.
“It’s just a thing,” it seems to say. “It’s just a thing and you will be okay, whoever you are, whatever it is you feel.” And there is something very brave, and beautiful, about that.(less)
”On the night of my eleventh birthday, Vivienne told me that I was cursed. It was her gift, she said. When she was gone the Brown women’s curse would...more”On the night of my eleventh birthday, Vivienne told me that I was cursed. It was her gift, she said. When she was gone the Brown women’s curse would pass to me and, if I ever knew which way death would come, I could run hard in the other direction.”
Seventeen-year-old Friday Brown is a runner. Her whole life has revolved around escape: moving from town to town with her Mother, never staying too long in one place, abandoning the past and trying to outpace a cursed future. After befriending a strange boy called Silence, Friday falls in with a group of street kids lead by charismatic matriarchal figure, Arden. When they end up in an outback ghost town, Friday must challenge everything she believes to be true about family, and fate.
Friday Brown was easily my most anticipated release of 2012. It will also likely be my favourite. I had high expectations, and Vikki Wakefield exceeded them. As much as I loved All I Ever Wanted, in Friday Brown Wakefield’s style has developed and deepened, resulting in a novel that is thematically resonant and complex.
Something Wakefield does beautifully, with both All I Ever Wanted and Friday Brown, is write perceptively about the concept of identity and its fluid state in young adulthood. Mim (of All I Ever Wanted) and Friday are both teenage girls who question and redefine themselves – Mim through the challenging of her rigid system of rules, Friday through the stripping away of everything she believes has given her life context. Without her mother, without the stories she has grown up with – who is she? When the only family she has ever known is taken away, does she know herself at all?
This idea of discovery, of identity as evolving rather than static, overarches the narrative. Friday, who eschews forming relationships due to the accompanying responsibility, is also a vulnerable character who has an inherent need to belong. Initially reluctant to forge meaningful connections with others, she is drawn to the sense of envelopment in Arden’s patchwork family. However, as the full extent of Arden’s manipulative nature is gradually exposed, Friday begins to reclaim herself and determine her own path.
There is a recurring motif of duality and comparison threaded through the Friday Brown; the novel itself is broken into two sections, ‘The City’ and ‘The Dust’, to form the whole of Friday’s journey. This tendency to contrast is repeated in various forms: the mother-figures of Vivienne and Arden, the fug of stale, recycled air in a car and the first breath taken in the outback. Vengeance and mercy, harshness and love. The truth versus a truth. And ultimately, good and evil. The entire story builds to a moment of definition for Friday, a power struggle not just between characters but also within herself, a moment of choice with irrevocable consequences.
Yet this is far from a simple novel. It’s complex and layered, unflinchingly honest in its portrayal of grief, homelessness and the abuse of power. The characters are flawed and contradictory, not always sympathetic. They are, however, compelling. It’s the relationships that fuel the tension of the novel - the shifting allegiances, fragile bonds of trust, sense of family and the undercurrent of manipulation. Wakefield crafts the relationships carefully, and it’s the authenticity of the connections, and the emotional investment in them that her writing inspires, that drives the novel to its powerful finale.
There’s an almost gothic element to Friday Brown, particularly in the second half of the story that unfolds in the ghost town of Murungal Creek. There’s a pervasive unease to the scenes that take place here, shadowed by Friday’s curse and the mounting tensions among the group, pared back both physically and emotionally. It’s also here that Wakefield’s imagery and use of the elements as symbolism come to the fore, in a tense, heart-wrenching conclusion.
Honestly, I’ve been intending to review this book for a long time, but each time I opened the document I end up just staring at a blinking cursor. I was overwhelmed by the desire to say everything, and not knowing how to express anything. I love this book that much. I still think about it. About Arden. About Silence. About Friday. About home and family and questioning everything you ever believed about yourself.
It’s beautiful and devastating, and I highly recommend it.
“..my heart is its own fierce country where nobody else is welcome.”
“Q: And who the hell do I think I am? A: I have no idea.”
The long-awaited compani...more“..my heart is its own fierce country where nobody else is welcome.”
“Q: And who the hell do I think I am? A: I have no idea.”
The long-awaited companion to Wood’s much-loved debut, Six Impossible Things, does not disappoint. Wildlife is a beautiful and bittersweet novel of heartbreak and healing, friendship and betrayal; an achingly authentic portrayal of coming of age against a backdrop of the Victorian wilderness.
Where there was a certain light-hearted buoyancy that tempered the issues explored in Six Impossible Things, Wildlife has an emotional resonance and depth that befits both the maturation of the characters and the themes of the novel. This is a story that navigates the complexities of grief, sexuality and (not) fitting-in, written with a perceptive grasp of how the teen characters internalise and process these events.
The writing is a blend of lyrical and astute, laced with the raw longing and heady desire of heartbreak and burgeoning attraction. Related through the dual perspectives of Sibylla and Lou, Wood weaves a narrative of loss and love, gradually entwining the lives of the two girls as they learn to survive in the wild.
“Greatest pain in the world: the moment after waking. Remembering again as consciousness slaps my face in the morning’s first sigh. Nips fresh the not-healed wound. Clubs its groundhog self into my brain, a new sharp bite, a new blunt instrument for every single day of the week. Grief has so many odd-value added features. You’d laugh.”
Using the setting of an outdoor education program, Wood places her characters into a heightened environment – here, life is distilled, concentrated down to its fundamental elements. In one sense, it’s survival in the physical world, stripped of outside influences and support networks. In another, it creates an incubator that intensifies and tests allegiances. This concept of habitat and isolation from external factors serves to pressurise relationships, forcing them to either evolve or disintegrate.
“Sometimes I think I see you, Sibylla, but then you get all blurry about what people think about you… The only person you should be is yourself. You can’t control perception. All you can control is how you treat someone else.”
Into this amplified reality, Wood mixes envy and manipulation, referencing the novel’s Othello motif in the dynamic of Sibylla and Holly’s friendship. The longevity of the relationship and the tenuous balance of power that both girls have grown accustomed to is challenged when the limelight suddenly falls on Sibylla. With this new attention, the roles they occupy within the school’s social order are shifted, presenting opportunity, confusion, and a catalyst for the toxicity of their friendship to emerge. It’s an insightful portrayal of the insidious creep of jealousy and cruelty, the way lines between friend and enemy can be obscured by years of shared history, and the complex nature of female friendships.
Within this framework, Wood also addresses perceptions of beauty and popularity, particularly as it relates to the hierarchy of high school. The concept of Sibylla’s beauty and how it is viewed and acknowledged by the characters is handled particularly intelligently; Wood has smart, interesting things to say about self-image and change, and the frequent dichotomy between the way we see ourselves, and the way others see us.
Wildlife is frank in its depiction of sex and desire – in both the physical acts and feelings, and in attitudes towards sexuality. Anyone who thinks YA shies away from candidly portraying teen girls’ responses to sex needs to read this book, because it’s handled openly and positively, even while it acknowledges the negative messaging and misogyny that saturate mainstream media. Wildlife is refreshingly honest, addressing the imbalance while remaining true to the characters – who are complex, fallible, three-dimensional.
But most of all, I loved the achy ambiguity of the relationships, the palpable sense of yearning that accompanies reality when it doesn’t quite match the characters’ expectations. Wood has a keen grasp of how it feels to be in this emotional limbo, and it comes across raw and compelling in her writing. It’s like being fifteen all over again – exposed, vulnerable, yet brave - tasting the world for the first time and being surprised that the sweetness can be laced with the bitter.
A novel about testing new realities, survival and nine-letter words, Wildlife is utterly gorgeous.
If Finnikin of the Rock was a story about a divided and displaced nation’s journey towards healing thei...more(Scroll down if you'd prefer the tl;dr version)
If Finnikin of the Rock was a story about a divided and displaced nation’s journey towards healing their collective psyche, Froi of the Exiles is about a people broken apart by hatred, the wound in their history left to fester, and seep suspicion and fear into the cracks between them. A faceless, malevolent presence in Finnikin of the Rock, this is Charyn’s unveiling as more than simply “the enemy” of Lumatere. It’s an insight into a land burdened by suffering and grief, and the darker side of human nature.
While Finnikin of the Rock covered more ground in one sense of the word, with a quest that lead its characters into the far corners of Skuldenore, Froi of the Exiles is a novel on a vaster scale in several ways. This story is more complex, with an intricate web of a plot, and it unfolds new dimensions to Marchetta’s fantasy world and the resident characters. Froi of the Exiles plumbs depths of the world only hinted at in Finnikin of the Rock: the detail is richer, each small element is vital and serves a larger purpose in the whole. The themes are pushed further, and by extension the characters are more nuanced, forced to develop in often unexpected, yet organic, ways.
Given the serpentine nature of the plot and the level of intrigue present, at times this is a difficult story to keep hold of. It twists sharply, resists being pinned down, turns in surprising directions. Yet it never feels loose or uncontrolled. There was always a sense, as I read, that Marchetta was driving this story exactly where it needed to go, regardless of how difficult a course she charted. The entire story is characterised by a sense of weight and momentum, that it’s being inexorably drawn to some powerful, inevitable conclusion.
This is an extraordinarily strong book, and probably one I’ll have to read again to fully appreciate the intricacies of the plot, but I believe that its greatest power lies (as with Finnikin) in the characterisation and relationships. Marchetta does not go easy on her characters, providing them with convenient justifications for their actions or plot developments that open up handy loopholes. Instead, she forces them to wrestle their inner demons, with all the brutality and desperation that hand to hand combat entails.
Which brings me to Froi. (Froi!) For those who have read Finnikin of the Rock, you’ll be aware of the fact that Froi attempts something abhorrent in the first book. So it speaks to Marchetta’s skill as a writer that she is able to develop this character - his shame, his humanity, his convictions - in such a way that makes him deeply compelling. There are plenty of easy roads Marchetta could have taken in bringing Froi back as a main character, effectively glossing over his backstory. But I think that would have taken away from the thematic power of the novel, and been disingenuous to the character himself. Instead, by exploring the darker side of Froi’s nature, she creates a character so conflicted, and so authentic, it actually makes me ache.
”Although a voice inside had chanted to stop that night, Froi would never know if he would have. And he wanted to know. He wanted to say the words, ‘I would not have gone through with it.’ But he’d never know and that was his punishment.”
That passage punches me in the gut every time, and it’s small moments of crystallised thought such as this that make Froi’s growth throughout the novel, redefining the terms on which he lives his life, so real and heartbreaking.
But it’s not only Froi that Marchetta is unafraid of putting into morally ambiguous and unsympathetic positions, flaws exposed. Almost every character in the novel has to fight for something, has some excruciating internal journey to travel. Lucian, Beatriss, Trevanion, Lirah, Gargarin, amongst others – all carry with them some kind of pain, and have been or must go through something that will alter them irrevocably. While not always (if at all) providing tidy resolutions, there’s something rewarding about accompanying these characters on their journeys. There is a redemptive nature to their growth, and an acknowledgement that people are rarely all good or all evil, and all are capable of both inflicting pain.
And then, Quintana. Oh, Quintana. I’m not sure there is a character I’ve felt so fiercely about recently. She is my spirit animal. Neither clichéd fantasy princess or “kickass heroine” in a physical sense, Quintana is an alloy of contradictions: vulnerability, humour, grief, rage, intelligence, insanity. She’s tenacious and a little bit feral. She’s passionate and cold. And though this is largely Froi’s story, the chemistry of these two characters, the way they crash together on the page, is pretty captivating.
I won’t brush off the fact that this isn’t a light book, in terms of the content. Be warned that there’s all manner of brutality in this story: rape, torture, infanticide – Marchetta takes Froi of the Exiles to some very dark places. Reader thresholds for this type of subject matter will vary, naturally, but I feel it’s worth mentioning that it didn’t read gratuitously to me. The inclusion felt purposeful, important to the story being told.
On the other hand, it would remiss of me not to note that this book worthwhile things to say on the issues of religious tolerance, racism and cultural prejudice. Just as she does not flinch from showing both the repugnant and the admirable in her characters, Marchetta also shows the cruelty humans are capable of, along with their capacity for forgiveness and absolution.
Underpinning this very involved and intense novel, however, is the very human desire to belong somewhere. To have a sense of home, of family, and connection. And that this can sometimes be found in the most unlikely of places.
tl;dr: This book is a beautifully complex, emotional wrecking ball. It’s brilliant.
P.S. Thank goodness I held off from reading this until now. I think a year long wait for Quintana of Charyn might have completely cracked me.
* * * * * I can't even, people. I just finished and everything hurts.
“..against your will it would make you think of just how much of your day comprised simply missing things. Just how much eluded you. Just how many ki...more “..against your will it would make you think of just how much of your day comprised simply missing things. Just how much eluded you. Just how many kicks you were behind the play. Unravelled, you would entertain these thoughts. You would be sitting with a guide dog and a slipped guard. And ambivalence. Eleanor Rigby, the girl who kept Distance above all, would feel excluded.”
Rhubarb is the book I never knew I wanted to read – all the makings of a favourite, here all along in a title I’d repeatedly overlooked. It’s a touching and sharply perceptive novel that interlaces two portraits of isolation, different in cause but alike in effect. Eleanor Rigby is blind, Ewan Dempsey is agoraphobic. Both are sequestered by their pasts, hobbled by the present, occupying tightly closed private worlds that collide in the lead up to Christmas of 1999.
Rather than a story about loneliness, in the sense of a disconnect between social interaction and the desire for it, I think that here Silvey recognises that there’s a certain kind of solace in solitude, and that isolation can be, for some, a form of refuge. And it’s this cultivated aloneness that makes the eventual connection so poignant, so much more powerful, because the walls are breached in spite of their familiarity and comfort. This is not a story about “fixing” people or miraculously conquering deeply ingrained emotional pain, but the soft click of two people fitting together by virtue of understanding and mutual empathy, recognising something in other that speaks just to them. It explores the personal cost at which this sense of connection is bought – how much it takes to lay bare things long hidden away.
Silvey constructs the story in vignette-like sections of Eleanor and Ewan’s lives, past and present, and the characters that reside on the periphery of their worlds. It’s a novel of finely detailed, interlocking parts and a wry observations of community. As in Jasper Jones, Silvey displays a skill for insightfully expressing the idiosyncrasies of Australian culture, and for crafting a rich setting. The dense heat of December is palpable, as is Eleanor’s physical discomfort as she navigates the streets of Fremantle in the company of her noble guide dog Warren. The quiet of Ewan’s cottage, broken only by a pair of randy possums and his beloved cello Lillian, is stifling. There is very much a sense of place in the novel, a distilled and concentrated atmosphere that gives the story intensity and draws the reader in. It’s an evocative, sensory book – beautifully textured with sound and touch and scent.
There’s an artistry to the way Silvey uses language. He writes with almost a disregard for conventional writing rules, favouring words that run together and quirks of capitalisation, slipping between second and third person narration in a manner that feels fluid and comfortable. There’s no denying that there’s a floridness to the description and word choice, but it doesn’t feel cloying. Rather, the imagery lends this novel an almost whimsical edge, a softness to the occasionally dark and brutal elements of the story. It’s easy to see how the exuberance of Rhubarb developed into the slightly more measured prose of Jasper Jones. Both showcase Silvey’s unique style, but there’s something about the freeness and the flow of words in Rhubarb that I love. It’s a kind of literary abandon that pays off, feels organic and charming rather than contrived and awkward.
Rhubarb balances humour and sadness with particular finesse, managing to tread a line between due respect for the characters and not taking itself too seriously. There are parts I found genuinely laugh-out-loud hilarious, partially due to the slightly dry, tongue in cheek delivery. On the other hand there are quietly devastating elements of this story, moments of grief and longing striking for their warts-and-all honesty. It’s an unconventional book, but a moving one, a story to be savoured.
Finally, a thank you to the lovely Eleanor Rigby (yes, Eleanor Rigby) whose gentle prods towards this book are greatly appreciated. Without her recommendation, what would turn out to be one of my favourite books of the year might have gone undiscovered.
* * * * * Recommended to me by the lovely Eleanor Rigby, not to be mistaken for the Eleanor Rigby in this book, who also has an Eleanor Rigby namesake. I feel very meta right now. (less)
This review is so overdue it’s.. not even funny anymore.
Actually, it wasn’t funny to begin with so there goes my witty opening. Things can only go do...moreThis review is so overdue it’s.. not even funny anymore.
Actually, it wasn’t funny to begin with so there goes my witty opening. Things can only go down from here, really. I warn you.
If I was a liar, I’d say I had left this review space to lie fallow so long because I was taking my time to process and analyse the novel, to think Deep and Meaningful Thoughts, and draft a serious and critical review.
But the honest truth is (a) I can procrastinate like nobody’s business and, (b) I actually found the prospect of writing this review extremely daunting. I happen to be one of those people who sees a bar set high not as a challenge, but an excuse to slink away and pretend I was never there. “Nothing to see here people, just wimping out…”
And does Craig Silvey ever set the bar high.
There’s a precarious point between following the rules for writing and breaking the rules for writing where occasionally something quite brilliant is created. (I started trying to make a venn diagram to illustrate that point, then realised I was just avoiding this review again.) And overall, with a few unsteady moments, I think that Jasper Jones hits that mark.
Of all those things I (and others, I suspect) was taught to never do while writing, Silvey has used them to craft something quite special, a book that is less words on paper and more a profoundly moving experience.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I didn’t feel this way immediately.
From the first page, I thought the writing was beautiful, arresting. But throughout the first couple of chapters (and they’re long chapters) I was conscious of a feeling that I wanted to hop outside of myself, get behind my own brain, and push - like rolling a stone up a hill. I was aware that what I was reading was good, even great, and that I was going to be rewarded in some way. But despite Charlie and Jasper's grim discovery at the book’s opening, there was also something arduous about it, the way book meanders through its set up. And call me un-Australian (haha) but I’m afraid all that cricket talk went straight to the keeper and it was a bit of a slog for me to get through.
I realise that’s not a very auspicious way to begin a book. But in hindsight, I don’t think I would change a thing. I think that it was necessary to create the layers of tension and subtext and relationships, to create the drowsy, yet unsettling atmosphere that make Jasper Jones what it is. Which is unapologetic and brilliant.
In so many ways, this is a story about growing up versus becoming an adult. Charlie, a bookish teen, and Jasper, marginalised due to his indigenous heritage, are both outcasts that must grow up in a way that some of the adult characters never have. Both are compelled to make life-altering choices amid the deceptive quiet of life in a country town.
Silvey captures small town Australia so perfectly, even more so the social and political climate of the time. This isn’t always easy to read. After all, this was a time period when the effects and attitudes of the White Australia Policy and assimilation were still very much imprinted on the consciousness of a nation – and the prejudice, intolerance and outright cruelty that Aboriginal Australians and migrants were subjected to is disquieting. It’s a brave move, choosing not to paint 1960s Australia simply in strokes of fond nostalgia, but to reveal the shades of racism and narrow-mindedness that bred malice and ostracism. It’s unflinchingly honest, and thereby highlights the very real courage of its young protagonists, who forge a bond in the face of a community that fears what it does not know.
Jasper Jones is a book that creeps into your stomach and stretches your nerves. There’s a growing sense of unease seeping through the pages that belies the somewhat somnolent manner in which the story unfolds. And as the true nature of the Corrigan’s secrets – Laura’s, Jasper’s, Eliza’s, Mad Jack Lionel’s – begin to emerge, it’s hard not to feel anxious and sick and entirely absorbed in this complex, grey story.
Silvey weaves his backdrop of Corrigan with richly realised characters, from Charlie’s sharp and unhappy mother, to his effusive friend Jeffrey, but it was Jasper that truly owns my heart. Accepted nowhere but on the football field, his was the story that touched me the most, his rough words of insight that struck me with their truth, the glimpses of his fear through his bravado that were heart-rending. He does not tell this story, but it’s his presence that makes it what it is.
I feel like I say this a lot in reviews, as some kind of caveat, but I’m going to say it yet again: this book won’t be for everyone. The writing, the subject matter, and the technical aspects (which the lovely Shirley does a far better job of discussing) may not be equally accessible to all readers. And I’ll be interested to see whether the Printz nomination garners this book a broader, crossover audience, as in Australia (as far as I’m aware) it’s generally marketed towards adults. But there’s just something beautifully unique about this book, the way it doesn’t bend to conventional rules, a very Australian essence distilled and concentrated so accurately.
And the final, chilling scenes that wrap up this the story are so fitting and lingering that I think the closing image is possibly indelibly stamped on my brain. Long after finishing this book I was still wrapped up in it, the questions it presented, the threads that lay ambiguously untied.
The last star of my rating is for that ending alone. Powerful and haunting.
*** I just finished this on the tram this morning. Speechless.
This book has zombies in it. But it’s not about zombies, as such.
It’s abo...more[Edited, because ZOMBIE NAILS. See below]
This is not a zombie book.
This book has zombies in it. But it’s not about zombies, as such.
It’s about so much more than that.
Call them a catalyst, a threat, an inciting event – the zombies are an ominous presence that set off a chain reaction of events and lurk unnervingly around the corners of the book. But this is not even so much a book about survival, although that’s certainly one of the themes threading through the story.
For me, deep at its heart, this was a book about will. The will to live versus the will to die. And how sometimes, for some people, this is not an unconscious, involuntary response to each day as it arrives, but a choice and a fight every moment.
This Is Not A Test is an incredibly intense and psychologically gruelling novel to read. It had me in a stranglehold from the first page, from Sloane’s opening words, which almost echo with the emptiness carved out by her sister's absence. While her pain bleeds through the pages in places, there’s also something detached, cold, about her narration. Because her mind has been made up. She’s resolved. Until the morning the world shatters.
In depicting her vision of the zombie apocalypse, Summers uses restraint to masterful effect. The horror of the undead is rendered more powerful by the suggestion of their presence, like the sound of them hammering against doors in their hunger, as opposed to always placing them in the limelight. Similarly, by barricading six teenagers into a school, it’s the constant fear of a breach that stretches the nerves to breaking point, rather than an endless gore-fest. Which is not to say that This Is Not A Test doesn’t contain disturbing images of violence or pay homage to the genre of zombie horror – it does – but the effectiveness is amplified by the enormous amount of tension that has been wound up in the plot.
The scenario of six people thrown together, under siege by the rabid infected and forced to make snap judgements with life or death ramifications, makes for a mental battleground. The dynamic balances on a knife-edge, allegiances and motivations threatened by accusations, guilt and desperation born out of the desire to live (or die). At work beneath the more obvious conflicts are the character’s own internal battles, and the larger questions of what it means to take or save a life, and at what cost do they preserve their own. Who is the real enemy - the undead, or the darker side of human nature?
This Is Not A Test almost defies categorisation. It’s a hybrid of sorts, and the brutal emotional honesty is not sacrificed in order to continue ratcheting up the tension. It sounds strange, but the juxtaposition of the contemporary elements with the horror premise work exceptionally well. The parallels between the internal and external fight to survive are powerful, and there is a depth and relevance to this story in it’s insightful portrayal of pain, loss, grief, and ultimately, choice.
In Sloane, Summers has created a character and a story that hit me right in the chest. I felt an almost relentless ache for her, for what had compelled her to make her decision. And yet never does the writing feel gratuitous or melodramatic. It feels painfully realistic, all the more powerful for the things that are left unspoken, the profound silences between the scenes.
I was exhausted when I finished This Is Not A Test. I felt mentally, emotionally, physically (because I stayed up so late to read it) wrung out – and the haunting final scene of the book lingered with me days afterwards.
I’m a little bit in awe of this book.
And I’m going to start sleeping with a cricket bat under my bed.
Everything on the street is still. No wind, no sound. It's as if the earth itself has stopped breathing.
*Long, wistful sigh*
If entering the world of This Is Shyness was like wandering into a darkened hall of mirrors, returning to it in Queen of the Night is like sliding from wakefulness back into a welcome dream. Hall continues to gently twist the seam between fantasy and reality, creating an alternate version of Melbourne that is shaded with the fanciful and strange, the curious and bizarre. But the perpetual night hanging over Shyness feels familiar this time, and crossing Grey Street into the darkness is more like a homecoming than a tumble down the rabbit hole.
Until I began reading Queen of Night, I don’t think I had realised just how much I had missed this world and the characters, Wolfboy and Wildgirl. We reconnect with them six months after the events of This is Shyness, and whereas the first book had a larger focus on their shared quest through Shyness, the second book takes a slower, more subtle approach, examining the delicate web of the characters’ relationships and the ties that bind them to Shyness. It’s a quieter book, in a manner of speaking, but perhaps deeper than the first – delving into the nature of dreams, hope, and cause versus effect. After finishing This is Shyness I was inclined to think it an excellent standalone, but Queen of the Night proves there was (and is) much more to be explored in Shyness.
Leanne Hall’s writing is incredibly beautiful. For me, it’s just the right blend of lyrical and local, the striking imagery tempered with the distinctly Australian voices. Wolfboy and Wildgirl’s narratives are clearly defined, and as much - if not more - is conveyed in their manner of speaking and actions than their respective dialogue. Wolfboy’s burdened heart and tentative advances, and Wildgirl’s impetuousness and courage make for a compelling dynamic between them, and I loved the way Hall developed their relationship, allowing her characters to make mistakes and grow.
Also: Wolfboy, I want to climb into your lap and stroke your cheek. Just sayin’. *blushes*
While Queen of the Night further tears back the layers of this world and reveals more about the darkness, Shyness and Dr Gregory, I appreciated that it still does not give away all the answers. Hall leaves space for the imagination, for speculation and questions. Allusions are made and hints are given, but there are no explicit answers and the book doesn’t talk down to the reader by spelling everything out. The unexpected still lurks around corners, from a blindingly bright underground club to a deserted velodrome, the mysterious Datura Institute and pale flowers growing in teacups on street corners. And despite how much “curiouser and curiouser” Shyness becomes, it feels organic and unforced.
As mentioned above, the pacing and structure of Queen of Night is somewhat different to This is Shyness, but the plot feels more nuanced here. The secondary characters play a larger role this time, and ideas about the nature of both literal and metaphorical darkness, and the role of dreams as a conduit for emotion, are explored.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is about these books that I love so much. The writing, definitely. The imagination, of course. But in Queen of the Night I was particularly struck by the tender way the various relationships in the book are portrayed. The characters are flawed, vulnerable, but the connections are palpable. The final scene in which Ortolan and Diana appear perfectly articulates this, the way so much love and understanding can be communicated in the description of a simple action.
If Beatle Meets Destiny was a flirty love note to Melbourne, then Queen of Night is a kiss blown to this eclectic, secretive city, and a gentle acknowledgement of the hidden worlds it holds within.
I know full well how dramatic this is going to sound, but this book broke my heart. Not violently, or loudly, with a single devastating blow;...more4.5 stars
I know full well how dramatic this is going to sound, but this book broke my heart. Not violently, or loudly, with a single devastating blow; but quietly and slowly, taking it apart piece by painful piece. Whatever emotional sandbagging I’d done in the intervening years proved a poor defence, and in just 192 pages Sara Zarr’s excruciating story had brought me right back to being sixteen again, vulnerable and raw with self-loathing.
What strikes me most Sara Zarr’s writing, and Story of a Girl in particular, is its empathy. In telling the story of Deanna Lambert, struggling against the perceptions and repercussions of her past actions, Zarr cuts right to the emotional truth of the situation. Doing away with superfluous drama and paring the story back to the bare bones, Zarr writes from Deanna’s perspective with palpable understanding. I feel like she gets it. And that kind of validation is a powerful and moving thing, particularly for readers who find echoes of their own personal experiences in Deanna’s.
Knowing that this was Zarr’s debut novel, I think I had unconsciously tempered my expectations, particularly after recently reading and loving How To Save a Life. It was somewhat humbling, therefore, to realise that this slighter, quieter book, was equally powerful. There are no wasted words. Every scene is layered with significance, down to the small details that (albeit sparsely) flesh them out. The gestures, dialogue, setting, the spare descriptions are imbued with relevance to the overarching themes and characterisation. In few words Zarr paints a sharp and insightful picture of one teenage girl’s experience with shame, judgement and forgiveness.
Perception, and its accompanying shades and variances, are subtly examined in Story of Girl. From the wide-spread labelling of Deanna as the “school slut” and the ways in which stories are manipulated, through to Deanna’s perception of herself as unloved by her father, the various lenses Deanna is shown through are tackled without any heavy-handed declarations from Zarr on the rights or wrongs thereof. Nor are the characters cast in clear-cut roles as antagonists and protagonists. It simply is what it is. And I think readers would hard-pressed to say they didn’t know someone, if not themselves, who had been subjected to the perpetuation of a stereotype or label, or on the flipside even participated in doing so. Zarr’s story is a deft and effective deconstruction of the some of the myths surrounding the “slut” tag, and for all its economy with words it packs some intense and thought-provoking subtext.
I can understand why some have found Story of a Girl’s ending to feel less than adequately positive. However, coming from a somewhat non-“huggy” family myself, it felt honest to me. Sometimes, it’s as likely for someone to say: “I was wrong and I’m sorry” as it is for them to light themselves on fire. Sometimes shifts in perception, or forgiveness, are not accompanied by declarations or grand gestures. Often they come on gradually, unheralded. And sometimes, when one has forgiven themselves, the same acknowledgement from others is no longer all that necessary anyway. Redemption can be a self-fulfilling thing. To this end, I think Zarr’s conclusion to this book struck the right chord, with small glimpses of hope and change, while remaining in keeping with the gentle character growth throughout.
It would be dishonest of me to say that reading Story of A Girl didn’t leave me feeling scraped and bruised and bring me precariously close to an ugly cry in public. For a short book it certainly hit a nerve – it’s not often that I read something that takes me from anger and indignation to intense sadness and beyond. But in the end I didn’t feel like I’d lost anything for reading it. On the contrary, I felt like I’d been given something important and special. Certainly another viewpoint from which to consider things, but more than that, a sense that experiences like Deanna’s have not gone unwitnessed.
I don’t think I can write a review for this book. I feel neither equipped, nor inclined, to make an evaluation of A Monster Calls based strictly on it...moreI don’t think I can write a review for this book. I feel neither equipped, nor inclined, to make an evaluation of A Monster Calls based strictly on its literary style and merits. (Therefore, if you’re looking for an analysis of the plot, characters etc – you will be better served with another review).
So I’m writing a response instead. Or, I will attempt to.
I have a difficult relationship with books that deal with the subject of death and grief.
Occasionally, I find a book that is moving and resonant - and I will both love it and feel jealous of it, for being able to articulate things I never could. Books that somehow translate raw emotion into words, that create a mirror out of ink and paper, reflecting back things I know to be deeply true and real (to me, at least).
Then there are the books that make me feel like my emotions are being traded on, manipulated, cheapened. Reducing it to fuel for an angsty teen plot line. Presuming my tears can be bought for the cost of a $19.95 paperback.
I can distinctly recall watching a film recently and walking out completely dry-eyed and practically spitting with rage at the distinct feeling that grief was being commercialised on. That such an incredibly personal experience and the accompanying emotions could be held to ransom by an overwrought, histrionic movie.
Yes, I took it personally. Because it was personal.
A couple of months before I turned fifteen, my father died. It was sudden, an accident. We’d had dinner as usual. He was working nights and left soon after. I hadn’t said goodbye to him because I was annoyed about something. Less than two hours later, he was dead. I could tell you exactly what clothes I put on after my brother told me I had to get out of the shower and get in the car. I could tell you exactly which Renoir print hung in the white, soulless room we were herded into at the hospital. I could tell you, word for word, the first thing my Mother said after we were given the news.
What I can’t tell you is what happened after that. Well, after a time, things came back into focus. But there is a great chasm in my mind that covers the rest of that night and the following days and weeks, as if my brain realised I couldn’t bear it and filled that space in with darkness so I wouldn’t see any of it.
Now, it feels almost like a presence, something that has grown with me in a strange, symbiotic way over the years. Mostly, these days, it’s a shadow, lying quiet and dormant, but making itself known by shading my memories, colouring the way I speak and act all this time later. At other times, it is a thick, solid wave, filling up my body so that I’m afraid to speak, terrified that I might unleash a torrent I can’t stop. That I might be overwhelmed, suffocated, drowned in sadness.
I strongly believe that grief and death are deeply personal things that no one experiences in exactly the same manner. And I suppose that this is why some book and film interpretations make me so upset, that they somehow think they can package up the experience and present it to you, neat and orderly. ”Here is the sadness you ordered! Here are the steps you will pass through! You should cry.. wait for it…now!” The reality, I believe, is so much more complex than that. So, when people tried to reach out to me, touch me, say “I know how you feel,” – I wanted to lash out at them. To scream that they had no idea what I was feeling. All I wanted was silence. Someone close by, not to interpret my pain, but to bear witness to it along with me.
A Monster Calls is many things - beautifully written and stunningly illustrated amongst others. But what struck me the most about this book is that it was so terribly honest. It bravely spoke of things that are often harboured in our deepest, darkest centres – far under the surface of our outward manifestations of pain. The things that are kept locked away by fear. Things that go unuttered because we worry that saying them aloud might make them real, and somehow define us in some horrible, irrevocable way.
Although this book did make me cry at it’s conclusion, I think in this case it was partly out of relief. The ideas expressed in this book, and very words uttered by the monster, allowed a weight to come sliding off my shoulders. I felt as if a personal truth had just been recognised and validated, in a very tender, respectful manner. Permission to accept that the thoughts I had pushed down as shameful and selfish, were just that: thoughts. Just one or two thoughts out of the millions I have had, but ones that I chose to hold on to and punish myself with for years.
I have not read another book that expressed so much understanding of what this is like. I have not read another book that felt this empathetic – it doesn’t just acknowledge your pain, it is a shared experience.
A Monster Calls is a special book, one to be absorbed, internalised and held very, very tightly.
I hope that it others are able to connect and love this book, to feel it leave an indelible print on them once the covers are closed.
I know that I did.
Again - apologies for the overly personal tangent this review took. But I'm afraid I simply couldn't find a way to write about this book without my own experiences seeping in. (If time lends me some objectivity, I might come back here and edit to make this a little more helpful.) (less)
Some stories feel thinner than the paper they’re printed on. Without disrespect to the work that goes into crafting a novel, sometimes reading certain...more Some stories feel thinner than the paper they’re printed on. Without disrespect to the work that goes into crafting a novel, sometimes reading certain books can feel like nothing more than following words across paper. A perfunctory effort for a temporary experience - there’s nothing really holding me to the story.
Then there are stories that make me forget I’m reading, that draw me in beyond the paper and ink and binding. Stories that I both absorb and am absorbed into - an experience that feels strangely symbiotic and completely organic.
It’s the quietness of Sara Zarr’s writing that completely undoes me. There’s a quality of stillness about it that lends her stories a kind of gravity. The language is clear and uncluttered, yet sometimes devastating in its emotional honesty. Zarr writes about the kind of things that feel almost seismic to us internally, while making barely a ripple in the world at large. She builds stories around relatable sentiments and all too common events – lives fragmented by pain, grief, abuse, and held together with fragile threads of hope and redemption.
There is something very sincere about the undemonstrative way Zarr crafts raw, poignant moments in her prose – and while you don’t always notice the impact at the time, it emerges like a bruise once the book is closed. The themes are universal, but the execution feels deeply personal and heartfelt.
How To Save A Life weaves together the dual narration of Jill, grieving for her father, and Mandy, a pregnant teen seeking a better life for her unborn child. Their lives converge when Jill’s mother makes the decision to adopt a child – with life changing repercussions for all involved.
Both voices are exceptionally well-realised, essential for such a character-driven story. And while there is some crossover of events between the perspectives, they remain distinct and true to each character.
Jill and Mandy’s respective style and tone of narration are indicative of the type of people they are, often revealing more through implication than explicit “telling”. In this sense, both Jill and Mandy felt very real, and I cared about them and their situations. Even at Jill’s most thorny and closed off, her most deliberate slamming of figurative doors in the face of those who would reach out to her in her grief, I felt for her. Even at Mandy’s most conflicted and (seemingly) obtuse, my heart ached for her and I wanted her to find the love and life she deserved.
The supporting characters, Robin, Dylan, Ravi, even Jill’s father Mac, also felt carefully crafted and had real presence in the story. I appreciated the way of that each of the characters were important in their own right, and not merely tokens or props for the plot. Despite their smaller roles, particularly in the case of Dylan and Ravi, they gave a certain richness to the texture of Jill and Mandy’s story, another layer of context to the bittersweet blend of pain and hope.
The plot and pacing of the story are largely propelled by the conflicts of the various characters, both internally and with each other. Interestingly, for a book that’s not totally plot-driven, I didn’t want to put it down. The character’s motivations and interactions with each other were so compelling that I carried the book around with me, torn between wanting to inhale it and wanting to savour it. (And also out of fear that Zarr was going to shatter me at the end. I won’t say if that happened or not).
I haven’t provided much of a synopsis of the plot – and while its obviously fundamental to the overall tone of the book – I feel that the true strength of How To Save A Life lies with the characters, and the sheer emotion they evoke while reading.
I’m awed by Sara Zarr’s beautiful and subtle way with words, with the quietly powerful story she has written. This was a book I won’t forget. (less)
I’m not even going to pretend that this review is going to have much coherency or critical value – I’ll just be upfront here and admit that it will be...moreI’m not even going to pretend that this review is going to have much coherency or critical value – I’ll just be upfront here and admit that it will be more of a gush than a review.
Melina Marchetta’s books were amongst my first encounters with young adult fiction, “Looking For Alibrandi” being intrinsic to Australian high school English curricula. I read ‘Saving Francesca’ when I was a couple of years out of high school, and I distinctly recall how much this book spoke to me and my teenage experience. At the risk of sounding cliché here, it felt like Marchetta had taken all those feelings I had harboured inside, unable to express, and captured them on paper, solid and tangible. Francesca and her mother’s story resonated with me, and I found myself in tears (and still do when I re-read it) because I had never read such a clear and honest echo of the feelings tied up in mental illness and mother/daughter relationships. In fact, my mother later read this book and was able to tell me how much she saw of herself in Mia’s experience, which is something we had not been able to speak about very easily before.
I think that the heart of Marchetta’s stories, and what makes her writing so powerful and real, are her characters. They are not mere vehicles for a story – they are the story. They are all people who might exist in our world, reflections of ourselves and those that fill our lives. Marchetta writes genuine characters - nuanced and flawed – and honest relationships. She shows the different shades to love, be it familial or romantic. And she doesn’t flinch away from the side of loving someone that can be painful or hard – that what we want from people and what they actually are can be different things, and are not always easy to align. In this way, the Spinelli family is touchingly, and realistically, portrayed throughout the novel.
While the plot of Saving Francesca is relatively quiet, the story is compelling. Largely driven by Francesca’s character growth in the face of her mother’s illness, attending a new school, feeling alienated from her friends and learning to understand herself, the prose is beautifully written and engaging. Moreover, the depiction of the Australian high school experience, and teenagers in general, is authentic and incredibly relatable.
Saving Francesca is definitely one of my favourites of all time, and highly recommended. (less)