Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Suicide: a good theme for light reading

It was slightly odd helping my mother buy two novels on Kindle, since both started with characters on the brink of suicide.

The first was Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down, which starts with a group of characters meeting on a rooftop where they have independently gone to jump off and end their lives. Since they each of them wanted the place to themselves for their suicide, they inevitably end up in a row with each other. However, they decide in the end to postpone their deaths and in meantime see how they can help each other. Hornby builds that whimsical premise into a delightful comic novel about what flows from that decision.
Well worth reading. Young adult or not
The second was Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places. And here’s the other odd, or at least unprecedented, aspect of the business: this was the first literary recommendation Id had from my granddaughter, now 13. My mother is 93. Even if it was only for advice on reading material, I enjoyed acting as a bridge across four generations and eighty years.

Niven also starts with characters on a high place, ready to jump off. In her case there are just two.

Theodore Finch, known by many of his schoolmates as Theodore the freak, describes himself at the start as ‘awake’. It takes a while to realise just what he means by this word, or rather what the opposite looks like, but the mountain of disturbance and pain it covers is implicit from the start.

Violet Markey, on the other hand, is popular with everyone. She had, indeed, been a cheerleader until the event that changed her life – a bereavement from a car accident for which she blames herself. That’s a shock with which she has found herself unable to come to terms.

So both characters are, as they admit to each other later, broken, if in different ways. That theme separates All the Bright Places from the general run of the mill of high-school stories flooding us from the US – it is, in fact, so far above that rather humdrum genre that it can hardly be said to belong to it all. It is, rather, a powerful story and a moving exploration of issues that should matter to us all; it just happens to deal with two characters who are American high-school seniors.

Nor is it just the themes that put Niven’s book in a class of its own. It’s also the way she tells the story. She chose an interweaving of Finch and Violet’s voices, as each describes memories, experiences, hopes and fears, in an interior monologue that might be a diary extract but feels more like a spoken confession. The voices are distinct and entirely believable, not just for two separate characters, but for two characters of different gender. It’s a tribute to Niven’s talent that she was able to write them so convincingly.

At the end of the book, an ‘Author’s Note’ explains how much of the work reflects Niven’s own experience. To me, that only deepened the poignancy of a story that was already poignant enough. Her experiences inspired a wonderful story of two deeply appealing characters.

All in all, a book well worth reading.

I’m sure my mother will get a great deal from it. And, of course, she can always switch to A Long Way Down if she wants rather a different take on things. And a bit of a laugh by way of relief.

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