Juxtapositions, connections and the impact they have on reading and reviewing

posted in: Jon Klassen, Kenneth Oppel, Patrick Ness | 5

Book reviews are sometimes presented as if they were impartial consumer magazine commentaries on washing machines, with the books extracted from the emotional landscape the reader finds them in.

Is it a badge of professionalism for a review to isolate a book from what brings it to life – i.e. the interaction with a real person? For me a good review will often place a book in its literary context, but are we being somewhat disingenuous when we gloss over the other connections made when we are reading, especially for review purposes?

This morning I’ve once again been struck by the way a chance choice of the two books I packed to take on a weekend away has influenced what they each made me reflect upon and how I responded to both of them.

Both, it seems to me, are about how very hard life can be, how complicated and bloody* difficult it can be , and that ultimately we can’t (and maybe even shouldn’t seek to) remove a lot of what causes us pain. Instead, adopting an approach which acknowledges and accepts there will always be suffering can bring a release, an energy and clarity that can transform into something like happiness.

I’ll never know if I would have made the same connections, had these books not been juxtaposed with each other but I am certain reading them together magnified what they had in common.

The UK cover – illustrated by Levente Szabo and designed by Ben Norland
Release by Patrick Ness (out in May this year) is a mysterious and passionate exploration of how a single day changes Adam Thorn’s life forever. As Ness is keen to acknowledge it takes aspects of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (also told over a single day) and Judy Blume’s Forever (a genre-founding novel about teenage sexuality), and is shot through with a weft of magic realism.

Adam Thorn is a teenage boy who feels he has to keep his boyfriend and his sexuality a secret from his religious family. Today’s the day, as he could never have imagined when he woke up that morning, everything changes; his relationships with his best friend, with his lover, with his ex-boyfriend, with his family, and perhaps most importantly of all – with himself.

Intense, complex and bold, Ness sensitively explores how Adam grapples with what matters to him, how he frames himself (or not) in relation to others, trying to untangle the confusion and contradictory feelings of love and hate, hope and despair. Whilst this book is out there and rightly proud of being so, these are themes I think that will speak to (m)any (a) teenager, gay, straight or something else. Pretty no-nonsense descriptions of gay sex will probably provide an eye-opening and much-appreciated-by-many-a-young-person education akin to that gifted by many of Blume’s books particularly in the 1970s and 80s.

I hope this not-unchallenging, breathtaking day exploring the emotional landscape inhabited by gay teen, particularly as they grapple with religion and coming out to their family, isn’t going to be only found on the LGBT shelves in libraries and bookshops; it’s a window and mirror for all sorts of teenagers (and their parents!), whatever their sexuality, dealing with broader issues that every teen has to face. This isn’t to diminish the particular experiences of gay people, but rather to encourage as wide a readership as possible. The kindness, the loyalty, and the hope (don’t we all dream that our lives could change for the better in just a single day?) found in this book are for everyone.

Alongside Adam’s story there’s a second narrative following similar themes; acceptance, ‘redemption’ (or otherwise) and trying to make sense of something very damaging. Whilst these interspersed chapters worked well for me in slowing the pace of the day down – so that reading the book was like looking into a single drop of water that magnifies what’s beneath in a mind-boggling, universe-expanding way – the magic realism won’t be for everyone. If you’d like to try something like Release, but without ghosts and mythical creatures, I couldn’t recommend The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth more highly. It’s a book anyone interested in phenomenal books for teens should read.

Just to be clear, the second book I read this weekend wasn’t chosen in light of the first; away from home for a couple of days I packed two unread books from my TBR pile without making any connection a priori between them.

UK paperback cover – illustrated by Jon Klassen, designed by Alison Gadsby
The Nest by Kenneth Oppel, with black and white illustrations throughout by Jon Klassen (out already in hardback, and coming in paperback in April) is nothing short of a terrifying horror story which asks the question: if you could change someone you love who is damaged into a undamaged version of themselves, would you?

An easy answer, and one which the protagonist of this claustrophobic, spine-tingling, full-of-sorrow novel chooses to begin with, is perhaps one we’d all choose first: Yes, of course! If you could take away someone’s pain and hurt, why wouldn’t you?

And so when Steve is offered the opportunity to make his very ill little brother all better, he goes for it. And it’s not all altruistic; whilst Steve tries hard to be patient and understanding, he’s fed up of being the last thing his parents make time for as they deal with their newborn who is in and out of hospital and faces a lifetime with profound disabilities.

But it’s not as simple as it might seem to take away someone’s pain and suffering, even when one can do so as if by magic.

Asking enormous questions about how we value different types of life, and what aspects of our lives define who we are or are not, all set against a stifling, Hitchcockian backdrop The Nest is an unsettling read; interesting and thought-provoking – but not comfort reading for me.

The large font, widely space, and the wonderful inclusion of so many illustrations (dark and broody and perfectly capturing the nightmarish quality of Oppel’s text) might lead you to believe that this is a book that could be labelled “middle grade” (as has widely been the case in the US, for example in these reviews by The New York Times, Publishers Weekly and The School Library Journal). Whilst some pre-teens might enjoy this book, I’d be cautious about shelving it anywhere other than in the YA section, such are its dark and disturbing visions, its exploration of anxiety and the complex, and sometimes frightening questions it addresses. Whether this raised flag reflects more on my own relationship with horror stories, or rather says something about what is “acceptable” in the US vs the UK, I’m not sure. However, in the “right” context I do think The Nest could really enrich discussions of reproductive rights and who makes decisions for people with disabilities and in any context it’s a page turner, not to read in by torchlight after dark unless you like to live very dangerously!

What The Nest and Release both shared so starkly for me was a positive message about how challenges and difficulties are a normal part of life, and if they can be accepted, the struggles they present can be turned into opportunities and hope. I hadn’t expected to find this connection although perhaps I should have always know there would be one given the proximity of NESS and NEST (Ha! Only just spotted that one!).

What a weekend of reading 🙂 What did you read this weekend and how much impact is the previous book you picked up having on the one you are reading right now?

*I’m assuming that it is now acceptable to use “bloody” in public seeing as Ron Weasley says it quite a lot in the Harry Potter films.

Disclosure: Both books reviewed today were sent to me by their respective publishers, Walker Books and David Fickling Books.

5 Responses

  1. Thanks for a very thought provoking review. I just finished reading Patrick Ness’ A monster calls and found it profoundly moving too.

    • A Monster Calls is my favourite book by Ness. I haven’t yet seen the film – part of me is very curious, but part of me doesn’t want to see it either!

  2. Oh! I so want to read THE NEST now! Loved the reviews. Thanks! 🙂
    Best wishes, Gisele
    gisele recently posted..Outlander – A Viajante do Tempo

  3. Chris Routh

    I have just finished reading Release and found the main narrative satisfying enough without the additional magical realism strand – and some readers may well skip these bits in eagerness to discover how Adam’s day pans out (and the rest). Which is fine! The additional strand will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it adds depth to the emotional landscape and places Adam’s experience into a wider context – where the need for ‘release’ has other possible meanings – though in my mind it’s all to do with the balance of power in relationships. I wonder what teenagers will make of it?
    As for Nest – I found this a disturbing read, but like Release, it uses magical realism to explore the intense emotions experienced by a young person at a key moment in their life, making the writing and the outcome all the more powerful.

    • Yes, Chris, I wanted to be able to experience what Release would have been like to read for the first time without the magical realism strand, to see how it worked on its own, enabling me to better reflect on what that adds to it. Following on from Release I read Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan – I thought it was utterly brilliant. One of the best books I’ve read in the last year.

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