Book review: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (first published by Penguin Books, a division of Penguin Random House, in 2015) 

Review first appeared on 

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Trigger warning: Suicide

Keep a box of tissues at hand because Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places will rip your heart to shreds. 

This book, already one of the most hyped about of the year, takes a look at depression, mental health and suicide amongst teens, and explores the stigma associated with illnesses that can’t be seen, but is felt on so many levels.

I’m no fan of the hype monster, but given that I was interested in this book even before it started, I simply had to pick it up when it arrived on my desk.

Needless to say, my experience of this book was decidedly jarring.

Yet, despite my initial ambivalence towards it, I can certainly say that this is a novel that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

In fact, I think my battle with it actually enhances the reason why I’m considering it one of my top favourite reads of 2015 so far.  

Death. Bereavement. Avoidance. Depression. Suicide. Hope.

If you’re looking for a read that will be filled with the jollies, you are not going to find it here.

Despite the book’s initial fluffy tone - something which I, at first, found very unsettling, especially given the fact that the book starts off with a boy who saves a girl from jumping off the bell tower of her school - All the Bright Places isn’t so much a happy read as it is a thoughtful, exquisite and heartbreaking treatise on what depression does to a person.

When Violet and Finch first meet, both of them find themselves at the edge of the bell tower at their school.  Somehow, Finch talks Violet out of jumping from the ledge, despite the fact that he himself counts his living days.

When they’re paired up for a school project that requires them to discover the wonders of the city and state they live in, what starts off as an accidental meet-up will transform them both; one for the better and one whose world will be changed irrevocably by the events that follow.

While the book is narrated from the perspective of both Violet and Finch, I feel as if this is more Finch’s story than Violet’s, something which I really appreciated because it is so rare to see books that deal with male teenagers struggling with depression.

It’s like the book industry is buying into the myth that only girls suffer from depression. And while there are books that do feature young males suffering from any form of mental illness, the ratio in comparison to books that feature female protagonists with depression, is far lower.

But, back to the book.

As mentioned above, one of the biggest criticisms about All the Bright Places is that it many people think it seems to make light of depression. That the tone isn’t what it should be.

Here’s my thing though.

I think people who make this claim are also the kind of people who, I feel, would be more inclined to think of depression as only being a one-dimensional illness. 

An illness that should only be characterised by feelings of misery, despair and unrelenting sadness, all of which it is. 

A sickness that isn’t peppered with good and happy days. 

There’s this notion that depression doesn’t come in degrees.

As someone who suffers from depression, I beg to differ. I know that some people’s mental health problems are worse than others and I know those who have many good days in between.

All the Bright Places, I think, is a book that highlights that. There isn’t a rule that says you should only portray depression in one way. And for those who think that it is, well, consider the fact that to make this assumption would be insulting to the complexity of human nature.

This passage from the book couldn’t have put it better.
 “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.”

Not only does it deal with the topic of how those who suffer with depression feel about their own illness, but it speaks of the fact that people somehow need to see a certain version of depression in order for them to believe it is real.

And that is why I could look beyond the so-called fluffiness to see the heart of this book. For those who want to give up on it, at least give the second half a chance – you won’t regret it. All the Bright Places is a book that speaks to us all in different ways and on different levels.

The characters, their stories and the words of this book will take you places. And it might not be your version of what it should be, but it does put you in the shoes of others in order to understand how they find (or don’t find) coping mechanisms to live through each and every day.

Read it. You won’t be sorry.