Saturday, August 8, 2015

Review: 'All The Bright Places' by Jennifer Niven

Busy-ness means it’s taken me a while to get round to reviewing All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, even though the thoughts have been in my head since I finished it a few weeks ago.  I really, really admire Jennifer Niven and her reasons for writing the book. The author’s note is amazing. I think it’s definitely a valuable one for teens and young adults to read – especially with the growing attention to mental health and suicide amongst young people, particularly male. Suicide is the leading cause of death in men under the age of 35 (Department of Health, 2005) and it’s something that we need to understand and empathise with in our literature, for all ages.

Niven’s descriptions and cataloguing of inner thoughts are very good and very human, this is the real strength of the work. I found it much harder to relate to and engage with the dialogue (and the names were very The Fault In Our Stars). The dialogue is all very neat, idealised and poetic – it’s lovely but not necessarily believable or relatable. It’s the kind of dialogue of metaphor-heavy, star-crossed lovers that you would find in a John Green book, which doesn’t sit so well with who either character really is and what they’re going through. I just felt it sometimes relegates Violet and Finch to the quirky, artistic, offbeat romantic heroes, without the edge and depth and reality that you see in their inner-thoughts. There is a disconnect there which I couldn’t quite get over. Finch was an interesting character but I felt that Niven created him very much as an ‘other’, that quirky artiste figure/romantic hero, which is absolutely fine but I hope that there are more characters in YA who struggle with very real things who don’t have to be outlandish and ostracised, and you could spend more time in their head and their experience of daily life. Of course, Finch is very memorable the way he is. I just worry these characters will feel fake and distanced from the experience of teens reading this and going through similar things. It’s not all poetry, it can be gritty and messy and confusing – particularly falling in love when you’re going through something like this, which can be the most terrifying, self-doubt and paranoia-inducing thing.

There are definitely some quotes in this one that will stay with you. Finch’s fixation on Virginia Woolf was really intriguing and that line from her letters is very affecting –

‘You have been in every way all that anyone could be… if anybody could have saved me it would have been you’

My favourite, though, is Violet’s observation –

What a terrible feeling to love someone and not be able to help them.’ That’s one of the best and most perceptive lines in relation to mental illness and the frustrations and helplessness that come with it. The people who are left behind are often left to wonder if they could have done more, and sometimes the simple truth is that there is nothing they could have done. It’s like that Anais Nin quote – ‘you can’t save people, you can only love them’.

Also, as Finch notes:

The problem with people is they forget that most of the time it’s the small things that count

The Great YA Quote Board
on Pinterest
The little acts of kindness and support can be the most vital. I’m really glad Jennifer Niven had the chance to share this story with the world, it will definitely add to an important dialogue and I have a lot of respect for it, despite some of my qualms. Those criticisms are probably some of the things that have helped it to sell well and appeal and get this subject across to a larger audience. She is definitely a very talented writer and this is a book well worth reading for anyone as they grow up in this day and age.

Some other favourite quotes:
-          “Before they can start in on Finch, and the selfishness of suicide, and the fact that he took his life when Eleanor had hers taken from her, when she didn’t get a say in the matter-such a wasteful, hateful, stupid, thing to do - I ask to be excused.”

-           “It's my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic if they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other easily understood disease just to make it easier on me and also on them.”

-           I know life well enough to know you can’t count on things staying around or standing still, no matter how much you want them to. You can’t stop people from dying. You can’t stop them from going away. You can’t stop yourself from going away either. I know myself well enough to know that no one else can keep you awake or keep you from sleeping.” 

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