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.' 

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