Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Jonas Karlsson's 'The Room': the Bjorn Legacy

*I received this book as an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Jonas Karlsson’s The Room sets the struggle for individuality in what is often thought of as the most banal, mundane and conformist of settings – the office. Bjorn works for the ambiguously named Authority. He plans out his daily work routine meticulously and displays compulsive behaviour in his navigation of work relations. His only escape from this routine is the mysterious room which no one else will admit exists. Yet when Bjorn believes himself to be in this room, his colleagues only see him lurking vacantly and unsettlingly by the wall. As office tensions escalate the banal begins to intersect with questions of individualism, metaphysics and ontology. The very nature of being, existence and truth is called into question. Karlsson’s sharp and compelling satire is both witty and unsettling, perceptive and ambiguous, and ultimately forces you to make up your own mind.

Bjorn is pedantic, convinced of his own superiority and utterly unable to relate emotionally to those around him. Yet like Meursault in Camus’ L’Etranger (The Outsider), he is oddly likable. He is a kind of anti-hero, both the office’s most efficient worker and inadvertently its most disruptive influence.

His observations of office life are great to read, they are rational and calculated to the extreme, devoid of emotional considerations. In one chapter he lingers by the desk of one of his female colleagues, studying a picture she has pinned by her desk. He stands there ‘for a while, looking at the badly drawn child’s picture of a sunset, and wondered if she was aware of its flagrant inaccuracy. Maybe she was blinded by her emotional involvement?’. Being solely in Bjorn’s head makes the narrative unreliable, but the extent of its unreliability is open to interpretation. Is he mentally ill? Or is he the only truly sane person there? Should the book be read and held to the standards of logic and realism? Or is it a kind of metaphor? It works on both levels. Bjorn certainly sees himself as ‘the person who had dared to break the pattern and think along new lines, the person who had dared to think ‘outside the box’’ and is convinced that he is being persecuted and tricked by the mob. His colleagues are distinctly lacking in sympathy if he is mentally ill - in fact, many are cruel and mocking. Karlsson thus alludes to social issues of mental health in the workplace without making them wholly explicit.

Jonas Karlsson
Bjorn’s own observations are extreme and perhaps unfair, but still valid. He marks out all around him as ‘inhibited people’ who don’t see the ‘nuances’, they ‘think everything’s fine… they don’t see the faults because they’re too lazy to allow themselves to have their everyday routines disturbed. They think that as long as they do their best, everything will work out okay. You have to remind them. You have to show people like that what their shortcomings are.’ It’s harsh and it’s arrogant but I think sometimes we look to literature for observations like these. We need someone to make them. Whether it is because he appears an underdog in the war for the office, Bjorn is a sympathetic character. There is one moment of clear emotion which stayed with me and is very moving:

‘I suddenly felt how lonely it is, constantly finding yourself the only person who can see the truth in this gullible world. I turned off the radio and went and stood by the window, looking out. The snow had turned to rain and for a moment I thought it might have leaked into the flat when I felt the first traces of wetness on my cheeks.’

Bjorn’s somewhat ineffective boss, Karl, and his colleague John are the only ones who defend him, however feebly. John, in particular, evokes the more metaphysical themes of the book when he stands up besides Bjorn and declares that ‘maybe we’ve reached a point now where this room has a certain significance. And on these terms then it obviously does exist’. When Ann responds that ‘either there is a room or there isn’t’, Karl protests that ‘it’s not quite that simple’, which should probably be the tagline for the story.

If, like me, you like the work of Beckett, Camus and Kafka then this is going to be a very satisfying read, that is, if you enjoy the satisfaction of ambiguity and multiple interpretations. Others may find these same qualities frustrating. The language is sharp, clear and incisive with meticulously accurate and detailed but unembellished descriptions. It is sparse and direct, in keeping with Bjorn’s character and the setting. For something that sounds and appears so bare and simple it is a richly complex and refreshing read.

Further analysis and comparison:

Reading The Room brought to mind a number of other similar reading experiences I have had and a few texts which I think share and can illuminate the themes. These are the aforementioned The Outsider by Camus, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I mainly wanted to look at and compare some of the endings – all share a similar build-up of tension and then reach a very charged climax which resist conventional plot resolution.

The ending of The Room:

‘When I got to the room I opened the door, then closed and locked it behind me as quickly as I could. For a brief while I could breathe again and think more or less clearly. I leaned against the wall and let my eyes roam around the familiar space. Everything looked much the same, yet somehow different. I could hear the others outside. They were there already, knocking on the door. Banging on the wood. They wouldn’t be happy to stay on the outside this time. The blows were getting harder and harder. I realised it was only a matter of time before they forced the door open and got inside and started poking about. I looked around to find somewhere to hide but couldn’t see anywhere particularly good. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and walked into the wall. The wall closed around me, like yogurt around a spoon. In there it was dark and soft. Surprisingly clean and free from lines and edges. No angles or corners for dirt to get into and hide. No light no sound. The smell in there made me think of the sea, and lilacs, and St Paulsgatan by the junction with Bellmansgatan at five o’clock in the morning at the end of May.

I could hear them calling my name outside, and I thought: you’ll never find me here.’

So Bjorn makes a break for the room, followed by the angry office mob. The room is clearly a place of solace for Bjorn throughout the text. In it he finds understanding he can’t find in the modern world. There is quiet and a regularity which is also flexible. It is a place of his own in which he can express himself. This notion of freedom (of expression and of creation) allows him to walk in to the wall, for it to close around him like yoghurt. The wall is soft, clean and free – there is nothing threatening or misleading or oppressive. The final line oozes defiance and triumph – tainted with a similar loathing (or a sense of the unhinged) which can be found in Meursault’s final lines and the end of The Yellow Wallpaper.

The ending of The Outsider/L’Etranger:

I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world. And finding it so much like myself, in fact so fraternal, I realised that I’d been happy, and that I was still happy. For the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely, my last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.’ – The Outsider, Albert Camus (from Joseph Laredo’s translation for Penguin Modern Classics)

Both protagonists are marked by hysteria at the end of their narratives – experiencing a kind of cathartic climax and sense of power – or an embrace of powerlessness and absurdity. They embrace the ‘cries of hatred’ from potential or actual spectators, finding release in their own personal happiness and indifference. Meursault, throughout his narrative, has been similarly non-conformist and emotionally detached, defined by an action or actions that no one else understands and want to punish. They are both in varying degrees of existentialist narrative, confronting the Absurdity (man’s search for meaning in the universe vs the universe’s indifference. See Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus) around them. Bjorn sees it in the office and the practices and routines of his colleagues. He sees it, for instance, in the child’s drawing on the wall. At the end of each narrative both Meursault and Bjorn seem to embrace the freedom that comes from living with Absurdity – the meaningless of what is around them - something their colleagues or spectators could not cope with.  

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a victim of patriarchal oppression and the ‘rest cure’ which leads to her seeing moving shapes in the wallpaper of the room she is kept in. The line ‘there are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will’ really ties in to Bjorn’s relationship with his room, particularly at the end.

The ending of The Yellow Wallpaper:

‘”I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall so that I had to creep over him every time!’

In what appears to be a state of madness, which she has been driven to by her husband and carer, the protagonist celebrates her triumph and escape. In trying to mute her self-expression and freedom, they drove her mad, leading her to find a kind of solace and identification in the wallpaper.

Then there is the governess in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. There are similarities in that she believes she sees ghosts and that the children are controlled by evil spirits. Nobody else fully believes her, she seems to grow more paranoid and hysterical (though the reading of woman-as-hysterical is misogynistic and I don’t agree with it) as the novella goes on. It ends with one of the children seeming to confirm her suspicions - she clutches at him passionately and he ambiguously dies in her arms. These protagonists are driven to varying degrees of emotional outburst – unlike what they have displayed or experienced before. 

Are they victims or villains? It is not that simple.

These are just a few comparisons that popped into my head as I read and are meant as a starting point for discussion/thought. All of these texts work on different levels and their themes are not straightforward. There’s an element of the gothic (perhaps not in L’Etranger) and the psychological in them, despite the huge differences in where they’ve come from and the times in which they were written. They all concern a kind of battle against oppressive forces that are denying them certain kinds of expression and freedom. And they all absolutely depend on the immersion, implication and involvement of the reader so if you’re willing to go deep, dive in! 

*UPDATE 15/01/2015 The Room is released today! Check out the amazing videos submitted for the Kingston Animation Competition - run by Vintage. I particularly love the Winner and the Runner-up. They're a good sample of the book's themes. You can hear readings from the book here:

Sunday, October 19, 2014

YALC panel: 'Women in Fantasy' Panel at London Film and Comic Con

YALC panel: Women in Fantasy at London Film and Comic Con

I attended my first Comic Con today and it was largely because of this really exciting panel – on a topic that I have written about before (my dissertation was on women in dystopia) and definitely will include on this blog again. I was frantically taking these notes while listening so I apologise if there are any inaccuracies – I have tried to summarise it the best that I can and capture the heart of each answer. Some of the books and characters mentioned I hadn’t heard about before so that was very exciting but also means I haven’t joined the analysis so much this time – all that I’ve written here is attempting to report what was being said. I will certainly investigate them though and it’s exciting to learn about the characters that have inspired others – there’s a whole world out there and always more to find out! The panel was hosted by Liz De Jaeger and included Samantha Shannon (The Bone Season), Laure Eve (Fearsome Dreamer; The Illusionists) and Zoë Marriott (Shadows on the Moon; and many others!) who were all awesome.
Favourite Fantasy Female Characters?

Both Zoë and Laure mention some Tamora Pierce characters – Alanna and Daine. Alanna is often described as a tomboy who longs to be a knight rather than a ‘young lady’ while Daine is a warrior and a mage (forgive me, I haven’t read these books). They feature in The Immortals Quartet and The Song of the Lioness Quartet.
Laure also mentions Lucy Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia because she shows herself to be tenacious, having to insist at the beginning that she is not insane and not making things up – Laure says she drives the story – unlike Susan. 

But Susan is on Samantha’s list – along with Hermione Granger and Arwen from Lord of the Rings. She likes the first two because they show it is okay to be sensible and to be bossy while it was Arwen’s horse riding scene with an ailing Frodo in the Fellowship of the Ring that stayed with her.

What constitutes a ‘strong female character’?

Samantha challenges the term itself, arguing that ‘strong female character’ has become a buzzword – instead it should be more about ‘complexity’. She acknowledges that there seem to be two main categories of female character these days – they are either a Bella (Twilight) or a Katniss (The Hunger Games) – but neither should be a blueprint. To make Katniss the definition of ‘strong female character’ does her a disservice because it makes her ‘two dimensional’. She’s more than a fierce-some warrior figure. She has vulnerabilities, moments of passivity and allows herself to be moulded by those around her on many occasions. Seeing Katniss as a great fighting hero completely ignores the intricacies of character and the subtle complexity in The Hunger Games - they're there, I've literally checked. 

Laure backs up Samantha’s argument – female characters must be complex and often their weaknesses are as important as their strengths. Being physically strong and physically active is not the crucial factor and not what women were necessarily asking for from ‘strong female characters’.

Zoë adds that in media the female characters that were presented could have been replaced by a ‘lampshade’. In her eyes it is not helpful to say that the two important traits are ‘strong’ and ‘female’ – too often we have been presented with a ‘fighting female sex toy’ (eg. ‘Halle Berry in Catwoman’ is one example).

So how do you write/create these women? 

‘By making them people’, Laure answers. 

Samantha argues for the importance of a compelling voice and a backstory – Paige from The Bone Season began simply as a voice rather than a person.

Why are female characters important specifically for fantasy and young adults?

Samantha’s response here is brilliant: ‘because we are still asking that question’ (originally Joss Whedon's quote). How often is that asked about male characters? Fantasy has been traditionally masculine/male dominated so, Samantha believes there is a need for visibility and representation – the ‘genre should mirror the world as it is’. She also explains that while women writing in genres like crime and fantasy sometimes adopt an androgynous name, she eventually decided that she would use her own name to try to break down these boundaries.

Laure, on the other hand, says it is no longer necessary to write female protagonists in YA, simply because there are so many already. Rather than being hung up on gender, she wants to write good characters. They all point out that YA fantasy is usually no different to adult fantasy and the supposed ‘genre distinction’ is just a tag in a bookshop.

Zoë explains the common perception that YA is dominated by female writers and female characters – but when you look more closely it is the men who get more awards, more sales and more critical acclaim. There is still not gender parity and people still think in terms of ‘boy books’ and ‘girl books’.

What gender stereotyping have you come across and really ‘gets your goat’?

It is often the case that the characters we love that become stereotypes and safe options, Zoë states. Although men can write very good female characters, even when reading the best authors she finds herself still conscious of a ‘male gaze’ – you can be empathising with a character and then the narrative will pull you back to show you her body (particularly the private parts…).

Laure’s pet peeve is the ordinary girl suddenly gifted with powers (and unaware of her attractiveness) who then encounters a hot boy who explains it to her and then drives the plot.

The best female characters in fiction?

Samantha immediately mentions Celaena Sardothien from Sarah Maas’ Throne of Glass series – for her extreme self-awareness and self-confidence. She also plugs a Swedish fantasy trilogy about a set of vastly different and individual girls who discover they are witches (the first book is called The Circle).

Alina Starkov from Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy gets Laure’s vote. She discovers she has an amazing power… and a sexy man comes along… but they are both very complex.

Zoë recommends s N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy which she says is beautifully written and full of character revelations and development.

Have you ever been asked to tone something down for female characters?
Both Laure and Samantha say ‘no’ (Bloomsbury bought The Bone Season as an adult book).

Zoë, however, describes one instance where she was asked to make a female character less competent (more useless) at fighting (and yet in Stormbreaker, fourteen year old Alex Rider, was allowed to do whatever he wanted). She also references the divide between High Fantasy (often medieval/imagined worlds/epic) and Urban Fantasy (contemporary setting) – in the case of the latter editors put more onus on the protagonist being likable and easier to empathise with.

Ultimately the important thing, Samantha adds, is to have variety.

The panel then moved on to audience questions, discussing their inspirations for becoming authors, the strange and invisible fame that comes with it and the sensation of power and magic you can have as an author. I found the whole session really engaging and am very glad I made the effort to go. Although there is a long way to gender parity, and still a lot to be desired in many of the female characters we are presented with in film, TV and literature, it is an exciting time for women in fantasy and reassuring to know there are writers like these out there – a new and bold generation.

Thank you to all the organisers and participants including Showmasters, YALC and Waterstones.

I would love to hear your own answers to these questions and any opinions you may have on Women and Fantasy literature or literature in general!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Review: Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel

*I received this book as an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

‘It was the end of the world as they knew it! Jeevan had had that song stuck in his head for several days now’

If I wasn’t won over already, an R.E.M. reference certainly did it. The song is oddly perfect for sections of this pre-/mid-/post-apocalyptic novel. In Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel does not indulge too heavily in the fear, hysteria and pain that accompanies the end of the world and its aftermath. Instead, many of her characters almost embrace the brave new world, a fresh start – and adjust. They all look for a way to make their mark and to mean something, but none sink into despair or hopelessness. They find new ways to live, even while holding onto the past.

We flit between the lives of several characters: Jeevan - the paparazzo turned paramedic, Kirsten - the child actress turned travelling performer, Miranda - the authoress of the titular comic book and first wife of Arthur Leander; Clark - Arthur’s close friend turned almost-curator of the Museum of Civilisation and Arthur himself - actor turned deceased. Many of them are survivors of the flu which wiped out 99.9% of humanity, and those that aren’t live on through their work and the impact it had on these individuals. There are threads that connect them all – even the most fleeting encounters can survive the end of the world. 

Mandel sets many of the post apocalypse scenes twenty years later to uncover what it is that truly lasts – and it’s not always what you’d expect. For example, Kirsten can’t remember much about the pre-collapse world, not even her mother’s face, but ‘she did remember Arthur Leander, and after that first sighting she went through every magazine she could find in search of him. She collected fragments, stored in a Ziploc in her backpack’. She cherishes a paperweight randomly given to her on the day he died, and of course the comics that also came from his hands. The memory and mementos of a celebrity, one she met only very briefly and hardly exchanged words with, is what she has brought with her through the end of the world.
Nathan Burton was asked to design the comic, written by Miranda and read by Kirsten, which underlies the book's themes
It is the Arts, primarily, which tie these individuals together, allowing them to impact each other beyond the limits of their lifespan and their encounters. Whether it is the performance of Shakespeare (Kirsten is part of the Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who tour their Shakespeare performances through settlements. We first meet her as a child actress involved in Arthur Leander’s final performance of King Lear) or the careful composition of a comic book never intended for publication, and of which only ten copies exist, the Arts are what remains and what endure.  Kirsten and her company live by the motto that ‘survival is insufficient’ (a Star Trek reference). Survival is not enough. Art gives meaning. Art crosses space and time. It breaches the final frontier. The book demonstrates this through its intertextuality – referencing cultural markers such as Star Trek, R.E.M and Shakespeare. Arthur’s surname may also have been inspired by a Greek mythical figure who dies trying to reach his lover and Jeevan’s name apparently means ‘bringer of life’ in Hindi (he becomes a paramedic).

‘Not quite a room, Jeevan thought now, looking around the stage. It was too transitory, all those doorways and dark spaces between wings, the missing ceiling. It was more like a terminal, he thought, a train station or an airport, everyone passing quickly through.’

These are Jeevan’s reflections shortly after Arthur Leander’s death on-stage at the beginning of the novel, before the Georgia Flu has really taken hold. They extend to the world that exists years later, that Kirsten wanders through and the terminal that Clark finds himself watching over. In their world everyone is just passing through, on a journey to somewhere – searching for scraps of meaning and memory (‘there was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could…’).
Emily St John Mandel
Station Eleven is a delicate tapestry of meaning - a careful examination of the world around us and the nature of human existence. It is written beautifully, with fluid long sentences and moments of poignant reflection and interconnection.

The Symphony are a fascinating microcosm of society - a ‘collection of petty jealousies, neuroses, undiagnosed PTSD cases, and simmering resentments’ who ‘lived  together, travelled together, rehearsed together, performed together 365 days of the year, permanent company, permanent tour’ – a medley of dysfunctional human relationships – ‘but what made it bearable were the friendships, of course, the camaraderie and the music and the Shakespeare, the moments of transcendent beauty and joy when it didn’t matter who’d used the last of the rosin on their bow or who anyone had slept with’. Despite their tensions, this group come to realise they would do anything for each other – if one is lost, they will not stop until they find them. It is their art and shared passion which unites them and transcends their differences. So when one quotes Sartre in the heat of their differences (that ‘hell is other people’) they come to reject it. In fact, Kirsten surmises, ‘Hell is the absence of the people you long for’.

Characters like Clark and Jeevan offer some of the best insights into the pre-apocalyptic world and the way its ending reveals some rarely acknowledged truths. Clark, at one point, bemoans modern society – recognising the people around him as ‘high functioning sleepwalkers’ (a brilliant term) - before he realises that he is just like the ‘iPhone people whom he’d jostled on the sidewalk earlier’, that he is just as ‘minimally present in this world’ as they are.

Would it be such a bad thing to start over? To try existence again in a different way? To feel able to be fully present? These are very relevant questions for the digital age.

Jeevan, on the other hand, has a moment where he is awestruck when he considers the sheer volume of what humans achieved in that pre-apocalypse world – and how integral they really were even when things seemed increasingly digitalised and mechanised.

He finds himself thinking about ‘how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt’. There were always people behind the machines, connected in changing but still human ways. Similarl - while witnessing an airplane taking off after being grounded so long - a post-apocalypse Clark is awestruck by the improbability of flight.

There are many of these little, subtle revelations scattered throughout the novel. Unlike many post-apocalypse writers, Mandel doesn’t overlook the importance of the little things – the very simple, taken for granted things that people might miss and think about differently in their absence or scarcity. This is one of the greatest traits of Station Eleven.

Of course, Jeevan and co also realise that human existence was never everything. He feels himself ‘disappearing into the landscape… a small, insignificant thing... He had never felt so alive or so sad’. This brought to mind the Existentialism/Absurdism of Camus and his contemporaries – the liberation that can be found in the realisation of one’s own insignificance. It is something both liberating and traumatising. Even after everything and everyone ‘lost in the collapse’ there is ‘still such beauty’ - the world doesn’t end. That is crucial. Life begins again anew with every change.

In truth it’s a very hard book to describe and review – I can say that it’s brilliant and I know that because I feel impacted by its art in the same way as many of its characters. I love Mandel’s style, it’s easy to read and very hard to stop reading, while still being deeply thought-provoking and affecting in a subtle, carefully constructed way. The thought and care in each word is so evident by the time you reach the end. The idea of the Symphony – and the connections between each character’s story – made me think of Cloud Atlas and the way a piece of art can inspire and draw together so many different people. Then there’s a slight trace of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – truly dystopian, very dark and bleak – a journey through the wasteland of humanity. There’s a vaguely similar kind of threat in the sinister figure of the Prophet, and the way in which the Symphony are also on a journey through a kind of wasteland of humanity, albeit with a radically different atmosphere. Ultimately, Station Eleven is an experience of its own - in and of itself - and thoroughly deserves its National Book Award nomination and the acclaim it’s been getting. Read it and then read it again.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review: Every Ugly Word - Aimee L. Salter

*I received this book as an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

‘…each wound was unique, but all left you bleeding’

Aimee Salter’s bold debut Every Ugly Word delves deep into the dark depths of high school bullying. Seventeen year old Ashley Watson has been brutally bullied for four years all because of one little lie which changed everything and revealed the dormant cruelty that lay in her peers. Secretly in love with her only remaining friend (Matt) and chastised and lamented by her own mother, Ashley’s story is one of heart-breaking loneliness eased only by a curious truth: when she looks in the mirror, her twenty three year old self looks back. As she relays the story of her darkest days to her psychiatrist she must re-think the relationships she held most dear – above all, the one with her very self.
Salter brilliantly captures the way the effects of bullying don’t end when you leave school, the scars are for life unless you are lucky enough to find healing. I found the book an intriguing, if occasionally flawed, negotiation of how someone can come to love themselves.

The flaws I refer to are really just me nit-picking and it’s only in relation to the logistics of the Older Me and Younger Me dynamic which might just require a suspension of disbelief rather than a full blown investigation into the space-time continuum and what not. (Questions that those interested in the sci-fi element might ask: is Ashley’s life on some kind of loop? How did her Older Me have an Older Me too? What are the repercussions for this after the final events? What merits an Older Me? Are their lives separate? Is it some kind of parallel universe where Younger Ashley’s actions don’t affect her Older Self’s circumstances? Is her Older Self just a projection? Does any of this actually matter?)

Ultimately I don’t think these issues destabilise the narrative or message too much.
I find it is best to look at it like this: often in therapy they speak about how the patient must develop a compassionate attitude towards themselves, and my theory is that Older Ashley is literal manifestation of something like this. Ultimately the patient must save themselves, and again this is literalised in Salter’s novel.

When Older Ashley sacrifices herself and crashes through the mirror to catch her younger self, she has made the ultimate sacrifice and demonstrated how much she values and has come to love younger Ashley. This changes her future and is undoubtedly the most important relationship in the novel for the reasons I have mentioned.

Aimee Salter
The book’s great strength is that it can prompt this kind of thinking and different interpretations. Matt, rather than just being the best friend/love interest/jerk, is a believable human being who is equally flawed and not a knight-in-shining-armour in any sense. As Older Ashley wisely says: ‘There has to be more to your life than Matt’. This is one of the few Young Adult books I have read recently in which I think the ‘love interest/arc’ is successful and not a weakness. By the end your feelings towards Matt will be extremely confused but he won’t be the most important relationship in Ashley’s life whatever happens, and that’s important. Salter remains true to her ‘heroine’ (probably not the right word because Ashley herself acknowledges she is not a hero).

It was with great relief that I read the lines: ‘Matt sits forward in his chair as if he might rise. But there is fear on his face and I am reminded that he has never fully believed in me. Never. Even our good days were underlined with doubt’. I felt relieved because Ashley is not dependent on him or what he thinks any longer, she recognises who he is and that she can never rely on him or any other person. She makes a rational assessment and it allows her to really take a grasp of her own character and face the tasks ahead. She doesn’t give it all up for a belief in a happy ending. That’s not to say she doesn’t love him and can’t be with him, just that she must always put herself first in order to grow. It’s a subtle but quite revolutionary shift for a young woman in a YA novel.

In terms of structure, I think the book is framed quite well even though the psychiatrist situation is slightly cliché. The pace is set by these two parallel timelines which are working to the point where they converge. She must reach the end of her story and session with her psychiatrist and reach and confront the darkest day of her life in the past. The alternating sections ensure there is a driving force which, particularly in the latter stages, makes this book a real page-turner.

There is something really authentic and sincere about this book which makes it endearing. It’s clear, as Salter has said, that parts of it are inspired by experience and that it very sincerely wants to be something that people can relate to and learn from. The bit where I really admired how serious it was was when Ashley’s psychiatrist asked her if she wanted to die that day and she responds – ‘I wished I was dead… it’s not the same thing’. There is a tremendous amount of insight in that sentence alone.

So this is not a light read, and some readers may get frustrated with the relentlessness of the descent into everything getting worse, and with Ashley often making what we can recognise as harmful decisions but it encourages and fosters understanding. The unapologetic authenticity of the struggle and how it is told demands respect and the result is a thought-provoking and heart-wrenching story which I’m sure many will find solace in.

Monday, October 6, 2014

'When you realise the wolf is inside you...': Epistolary Angst and Ava Dellaira's 'Love Letters to the Dead'

Ava Dellaira’s Love Letters to the Dead owes a lot to The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Dellaira was Stephen Chboksy’s padawan) but as it goes on it just about succeeds in finding its own voice. I have actually found it hard to start reading a new book after finishing it because it has moments of heartfelt insight that really settle in your mind. Laurel has her own distinct history and her own unique pains which Dellaira draws out at just right pace while making her a believable and intriguing character.

Let’s get the Perks comparisons out of the way. Making these comparisons isn’t exactly helpful – certainly not as helpful as pointing out the differences - but it highlights the crucial themes (in these ‘young adult’ novels) which arise. So there is a slightly different premise in Love Letters but essentially they both use the epistolary format in a similar, confessional and therapeutic kind of way. Both Charlie and Laurel find encouragement in their English teachers, who prompt them to explore their own thoughts and who they want to be. They both become friends with people who are struggling with their sexuality and the quirky outsiders who smoke pot and skip class. There are family issues, sibling bonds, first loves, and instances of sexual abuse. All set over a year at the intermediary stage of high school. It’s becoming a formula, but it’s the quality of the writing and the depth of the characters and their development which ultimately matter. 

Laurel begins writing letters to the dead as an extension of her High School English project. Among the contemporary cult heroes she writes to are Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Amelia Earhart, Janis Joplin, River Phoenix, Judy Garland and Heath Ledger. In them she tries to come to terms with her sister’s death – and life -, feeling abandoned by her mother and her life beginning again at a new school. This might feel a bit gimmicky to some readers, but it is redeemed by Laurel engaging a little with the intended recipients and their own stories. They are all relevant to a degree. It will divide readers though – especially those who have read similar things before. A lot of the drama and relationships are predictable and the journey to their resolution perhaps not explored deeply enough, particularly in some of the side characters. Some readers have felt a bit distanced from the characters and unable to relate or engage with them, others have felt the opposite. Unhelpfully, I felt in between. It wasn’t the kind of revelation I’ve experienced before but I warmed to the novel in the second half particularly – when it got darker and more intricate and I came to quite like it regardless of its flaws.

*Spoiler* It may be a strange assertion but I think Dellaira was doing something subtle and clever in the way May (Laurel’s older sister) died. Her death was something strange and inexplicable – a kind of universal accident. She was there one minute and gone the next – whether it was a change in the wind, suicide, a slip – she falls off the bridge. That is part of what hangs over Laurel throughout her letter writing – it seemed so silly, so preventable. If it was murder or a car accident or something it would be a very different story. As it is it is posited as a kind of existential struggle as well as a personal one. I think it’s the letters to Kurt Cobain that Laurel begins to find especially challenging – the relationship between her grief, her resentment, her inability to comprehend what happened – the Absurdity of May’s death - and his suicide. She fixates on his suicide note (‘you said it in one sentence I can’t get out of my head: I simply love people… so much that it makes me feel too fucking sad. Yes, I understand’). The resentment boils over at times: ‘Nirvana means freedom. Freedom from suffering. I guess some people would say that death is just that. So, congratulations on being free, I guess. The rest of us are still here, grappling with all that’s been torn up’ and ‘I don’t know why I’ve written you all these letters. I thought you got it. But you just left, too. Like everyone does’. Her one-way conversation with Kurt is crucial in her negotiation of her feelings surrounding her sister’s death, and her mother’s departure. It helps her to realise that she is angry and that she must find a way to forgive May (‘the truth is, I don’t know how to forgive my sister. I don’t know how to forgive her, because I don’t deserve to be angry at her. And I’m afraid if I am, I will lose her forever’.)

There are some great quotable passages especially when Dellaira is writing about the real depths of Laurel’s despair – the things we keep hidden from our peers, and even from our closest friends. Writing to Amy Winehouse, Laurel explains: ‘there was something between me and the world right then. I saw it like a big sheet of glass, too thick to break through. I could make new friends, but they could never know me, not really, because they could never know my sister, the person I loved most in the world. And they could never know what I’d done. I would have to be okay standing on the other side of something too big to break through’. When there are parts of your past or yourself that you can’t reveal to those you consider closest to you, it can be incredibly alienating (more than that – it can reaffirm in your mind that you’re weird or alien) and that is really expressed here. As the novel darkens, Laurel writes: ‘I hope one of you hears me because the world seems like a tunnel of silence. I have found that sometimes, moments get stuck in your body. They are there, lodged under your skin like hard seed-stones of wonder or sadness or fear, everything else growing up around them. And if you turn a certain way, if you fall, one of them could get free… I feel like I am drowning in memories. Everything is too bright’. The imagery here is almost perfect. That is all.

I randomly love what Laurel writes to Judy Garland when talking about Judy’s own childhood – ‘you learned right away that applause sounds like love’. I suppose it’s because it says a lot about fame and performance – the things that motivate people often lie in their childhood. Like the way that Laurel writes that Judy used her ‘voice like glue to [her] family together’ by singing to stop them fighting or to make them laugh.

Here’s a corny one from Laurel’s stoner guru (friend) Tristan: ‘When we are in love, we are both completely in danger and completely saved’. Tristan tends to play guitar, alone and unheard and Laurel surmises that ‘he does this for the same reason Hannah doesn’t turn in her work when her teachers say she is smart. I think a lot of people want to be someone, but we are scared that if we try, we won’t be as good as everyone imagines we could be’. Or perhaps, as we imagine we could be.

But Tristan’s best contribution comes much later and it is a really resonant message about any personal struggle: 

You fall asleep in the foothills, and the wolf comes down from the mountains. And you hope someone will wake you up. Or chase it off. Or shoot it dead. But when you realise that the wolf is inside you, that’s when you know. You can’t run from it. And no one who loves you can kill the wolf, because it’s part of you. They see your face on it. And they won’t fire the shot.’ 

There are some things that other people can’t reach, and you have to face the wolf yourself, but it’s not because they don’t love you.

There’s too many to analyse individually and as usual they are at the end of this post. If you can relate to any of these then I think this book is worth reading, because it’s always nice to find understanding in the pages of a book. Like I said, the second half is stronger and it reaches a conclusion that feels satisfying (perhaps too much so?). Don’t let other people put you off, because with books like this in particular it’s really subjective and can be really a negotiation of your own demons.

I'd be interested in hearing what you thought - does it do enough to distinguish itself? Is it too similar to others of its kind? 

Other Quotes:

- 'It’s sad when everyone knows you, but no one knows you… and if you wear leather pants, and have a beautiful body, and drink lots of expensive wine, and if your voice sounds like the edge you strike a match on, then these things are blocks that you have given them to build the person they want… I want people to know me, but if anyone could look inside of me, if they saw that everything I feel is not what it’s supposed to be, I don’t know what would happen.'

- (When her friend Hannah starts painting bruises on her cheekbone): 'Sometimes we want our bodies to do a better job of showing the things that hurt us, the stories we keep hidden inside of us.'

- 'You grew up so fast, River. But maybe the little boy who needed someone to protect him never went away. You can be noble and brave and beautiful and still find yourself falling.'

- 'Amy, you were all over the covers of tabloids and stuff, doing what you did. and how the world is now, how we follow everyone and try to see everything, it changes the story. It makes your life into someone else’s version of you. And that’s not fair. Because your life didn’t belong to us. What you gave us was your music. And I am grateful for it.'

- 'I thought about how for a long time, I wanted to be soaring above the earth. I wanted Sky to see me as perfect and beautiful, the way I saw May. But really, we all just have these blood and guts inside of us. And as much as I was hiding from him, I guess part of me also always wanted Sky to see into me – to know the things that I was too scared to tell him. But we aren’t transparent. If we want someone to know us, we have to tell them stuff.'

- '“There are a lot of human experiences that challenge the limits of our language,” she (Mrs. Buster) said, “that’s one of the reasons that we have poetry.” Then she said, “I’m proud of you. It’s not easy, and you’ve done a great job this year.” She didn’t have to be that nice to me, but she was.'

- 'Maybe when we can tell the stories, however bad they are, we don’t belong to them anymore. They become ours. And maybe what growing up really means is knowing that you don’t have to just be a character, going whichever way the story says. It’s knowing that you could be the author instead.'

- 'Sometimes when we say things, we hear silence. Or only echoes. Like screaming from inside and that’s really lonely. But that only happens when we weren’t really listening. It means we weren’t ready to listen yet. Because every time we speak, there is a voice. There is the world that answers back. When I wrote letters to all of you, I found my voice. And when I had a voice, something answered me…. I know I wrote letters to people with no address on this earth. I know you are dead. But I hear you. I hear all of you. We were here. Our lives matter.'