Monday, June 22, 2015

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) 

Disclaimer:
Review first appeared on Women24.com. 

You can
purchase a copy of the book on Raru.co.za

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.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Book review: The Jewel by Amy Ewing

A harrowing read that deals with the subject of surrogacy as a form of servitude, in a society that is dominated by wealthy and privileged royals unable to bear children of their own. 

Disclaimer:
Review first appeared on Women24.com.

You can purchase a copy of the book on Raru.co.za
 
The Jewel by Amy Ewing (UK edition first published in 2014 by Walker Books Ltd)

The blurb of this book describes Amy Ewing’s novel as being, and I quote, “The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Other Boleyn Girl in a world where beauty and brutality collide.”

In reality, it feels a little more like Suzanne Collins meets Margaret Atwood.  That said, despite the similarities, Amy Ewing’s The Jewel is probably one of the most interesting dystopian Young Adult fiction novels I’ve read this year.

In fact, once the book actually diverges from the more familiar aspects of The Hunger Games, The Jewel ends up being a pretty engrossing novel that tackles a subject I haven't seen explored in the Young Adult fiction genre as of yet.

Surrogacy.

Not just that though, it deals with the surrogacy as a form of servitude in a society that is dominated by wealthy and privileged royals unable to bear children of their own.

It’s not hard to find yourself compelled by this book given that it starts off with the protagonist’s ominous declaration: “Today is my last day as Violet Lasting.”

That sentence is the start of our protagonist’s hellish journey, in which her name, identity, agency over her own body and freedom of choice is stripped away forever. This, all in the quest to continue the royal line for a royal Duchess who can’t carry a child of her own.

The Lone City is divided into 5 districts: The Jewel, The Bank, The Smoke, The Farm and the Marsh, which is the poorest in the circle. As you can tell, Hunger Games vibes at first.

Violet Lasting is just one of the many girls who finds herself being whisked off to be sold at an auction to become nothing more than a broodmare/baby incubator for the Duchess who purchases her.

What makes matters worse is that in the Jewel (which houses the various royal lines), rivalry is rife amongst the royal houses. The quest to produce the first child, in order to be closer in line to the throne, is a vicious one - Duchesses will resort to drastic tactics (even murder) to get what they want.

This means that not only are they surrogates, but they have to watch their backs all the time as one of the best ways to eliminate a threat, is by killing off the surrogates to ensure that pregnancy is no longer a possibility.

To top it off, these surrogates are in high demand because they have special gifts (known as auguries) that can enable them to manipulate colour, create something from seemingly nothing; and most importantly, enable objects to grow at a very rapid pace.

It’s when she meets another captive and loses her best friend to the surrogacy programme that Violet decides that she has had enough and would rather risk exile and even death, than be stripped of her identity and free will.

The Jewel is the first in a trilogy, one that I found myself enjoying a lot more than I thought I would.

What makes this book stand out is that it doesn’t shy away from highlighting the barbaric practices of this form of slavery.

This book is brutal in its depiction of the suffering that Violet and others like her have to endure. It excels at juxtaposing images of the Jewel as a magnificent place, all the while highlighting its cruel policies, politics and underhanded tactics to maintain control of the city.

While I found the romantic element of this novel annoying (simply because it falls victim to the instant love plot device), I found myself really gripped by the story and heroine’s plight to not just fight for herself, but for others in the same situation.

If you’re looking for a book that features a strong heroine fighting for agency, equality and for the right to make her own choices, this book is one that I’d definitely recommend. I can’t wait for the sequel.