Author: Ava Morgyn
Publication date: October 1, 2019
Genre: YA contemporary/drama, magical realism
My rating: 4/5 stars
What a weird, yet beautiful, little book. I went in expecting something a little creepy, a little sad, a little quirky, but I closed the book (er, Kindle) with the sense that (a) I had just read a painfully real look at grief and loss, and (b) I just observed one of the most bizarre endings I had ever read. No, that isn’t a spoiler; trust me when I say it is not one you couldn’t predict even if you tried.
So let’s start with the plot:
“In the beginning, the dead are always with you. It’s almost as if they aren’t even gone, as though you could round any given corner and see them there, waiting.”
Olivia is not dead, but she might as well be. Since the death of her younger brother three years ago, she has wandered in a cloud of apathy, grief, and guilt. She isolates and sometimes self-medicates, while her father stays out late nearly every night doing who-knows-what and her mother is deeply addicted to pills that numb the pain.
“When we try to hold on to the dead, we lose pieces of ourselves.”
Enter Kara: confident, sometimes cruel, and kind of morbid, a girl who is Olivia’s age but acts far older. When she moves in across the street with her mother and her blind, very-creepy grandma, she is quick to take Olivia under her wing. Soon, Olivia is stepping just slightly past the bounds of her misery, rekindling her friendship with her childhood best friend Prescott Peters, and helping Kara with her weird hobby of writing letters to inmates on death row. But as Olivia gets swept up in Kara’s orbit, she begins to question just what she needs to do to save her family…and save herself.
“Kara was my resurrection girl, my messiah, and I was Lazarus, rising from the grave at her command. But there was something unnatural in it. Was I to be a miracle? Or simply an abomination?”
It’s hard to find a good starting point for my thoughts. I guess I’ll start by reiterating that this is not a light book. It deals with a lot of heavy topics, especially death and unhealthy coping methods (see my list of trigger and content warnings at the end of this review). Yet it was still a very quick read for me, due to a combination of its accessible language and its generally quick pacing. Sometimes the pacing was a little too quick, with events spiraling out a little too quickly and not enough connective narrative tissue to hold them together, but as a whole, it balanced itself well between Olivia’s numb, self-doubting internal monologue and the blistering reality that is her life.
“‘Life goes on.’ But it’s no kind of life and my parents and I hardly qualified as living.”
The dynamics between the three main characters were equal parts absorbing and painful to watch. Kara is a masterful manipulator–that much is apparent from her first interactions with Olivia–but she oscillates between carefree confidence and a nearly-malicious need for control. She plays both Olivia and Prescott like fiddles, and they both seem happy to let her do just that. She’s one of those characters who you kind of hate, because she makes terrible choices and does awful things to the people who trust her, but you have to grudgingly appreciate because her machinations bring about a much-needed change.
“He’s dead, I thought again. We all are. How silly of me to forget.”
Olivia’s narration of all of her hurt, the shouting matches and stony silences with her parents, the self-blame and isolation and guilt, is visceral and moving. Her character development over the narrative is uneven, but this is entirely believable–human progress, especially in coming back from a horrible event, is rarely linear. We see this not just in Olivia as an individual, but also in her parents, struggling to come back from their worst nightmare, and in her rocky path back to friendship with Prescott, who has some serious skeletons of his own. I think that was one of the details that struck me most about this story: nobody’s life is perfect, and there are no golden boys and girls here–just people with unhealthy ways to cope, some of which are more visible than others. And, in a move that so many novels fail to make, this one pointedly examines the very real consequences of those coping choices.
“The story I am trapped in…never crests, crescendos, peaks, and dips back down into a resolution we can settle happily into. Instead, it slithers, bucks, and then slides along, dragging us with it.”
But, lest you think this is just a nonstop stream of sadness, I do want to stress that this story is as much about healing as it is about pain. It is a movement from wallowing to walking to running–emotionally speaking, of course. There is a tiny hint of romance, causing some turbulent waters surrounding all three main characters (and yes, there is a queer component to the…er…”love triangle” isn’t quite the right word…). And the ending had one super wild twist that I still don’t fully understand, one that really amped up the “creepy magic” element of the book to a new level.
“I think anyone is capable of love, but broken people love in broken ways.”
Ava Morgyn tells the story with impressive depth and realism (and a hint of magic), and her language manages to hit several emotional home-runs. In fact, there were a LOT of beautifully quotable lines, both in Olivia’s narration and in the dialogue between her and Kara; I highlighted entirely too many of them in my Kindle, and they’re distributed throughout this review, as you could probably tell.
“There are a thousand kinds of pain. We don’t have names for them all, but we know them individually, each by its own unique ache.”
Now, this wasn’t a perfect story. Like I mentioned at the start of this review, the pacing is kind of off, with some plot points that don’t seem to quite go in a logical order. There isn’t nearly as much time spent on Kara’s death row pen pals as there could have been; there was a lot of potential to explore more ideas on morality and mortality there, but I suppose that those themes were sidelined in favor of brevity. And, well…the ending felt out of place. It wasn’t tonally consistent with the rest of the book. Or rather, it was still dark in tone, but a specific moment (you’ll know it when you read it) made no logical sense and shattered my suspension of disbelief for a bit.
In short, this was not the sort of spooky read I was anticipating, and it gave me a heck of a lot more feelings than I expected. But, sad though it was, I’m quite glad I read it. (As an aside, the book takes place in the summer, and I think it may be a better read for a melancholy, lazy summer day than for a brisk autumn one. Perhaps, if you decide to read it, that would be a better time to do so.)
Trigger/content warnings: prescription drug abuse (by both adults and minors), alcohol abuse, addiction, death of a child, grief, depression, mention of sexual assault (in context of a criminal’s charges)
Thank you to AW Teen Publishing for providing me with an eARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.