Sunday, July 5, 2015

All the Bright Places - Jennifer Niven

When a book opens with, ‘Is today a good day to die?’ it certainly grabs your attention. When that same question is one of the driving forces that sustains the story arc for much of the book, it’s satisfying to know the opening line was more than a sneaky lure to start you reading. Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet on the ledge of their high school’s bell tower, six storeys above the ground. Here begins a tentative association soon to flourish into much more when the two begin working together on a school project that has them ‘wandering’ the state of Indiana, writing up their experiences and impressions. Finch is a troubled youth, nicknamed Theodore Freak by the general school population. With no support from his dysfunctional family and limited guidance from the school counsellor, he is left to his own devices to try to sort himself out. The ominous threat of expulsion continuously hangs over him. Violet’s parents, on the other hand, can’t do enough for her, but the death of her sister in a car crash that Violet survived has had a stultifying effect on the whole family. Amongst the many aspects of her life that now seem lost to Violet is her passion for writing; she is paralysed with sorrow – and guilt about still being alive. As the two form a relationship, Finch encourages Violet out of her bubble of grief – she steps inside a car, she begins to make plans for a blog. Violet in turn tries to encourage and support Finch …

Written in the first person alternately from Finch’s and Violet’s points of view, this is a book that is not afraid to call the shots when it comes to the complexity of human frailty and the messiness of everyday life. Sometimes it isn’t only bad decisions and their inevitable consequences that cause a life to spiral out of control; fate deals an unfair blow more than once in a while. All the Bright Places shines a light on the power of love to transcend hopelessness while refusing to shy away from the gritty reality of the power of despair. A gutsy book about teen suicide that will leave you both reeling and buoyed by the promise of beginning again.

Penguin, 2015

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 30, Issue 2, July 2015)

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