Twelve-year-old Fern feels invisible. It seems as though everyone in her family has better things to do than pay attention to her: Mom (when she’s not meditating) helps Dad run “Harry’s,” the family restaurant; Sarah is taking a gap year after high school; Holden pretends that Mom and Dad and everyone else doesn’t know he’s gay, even as he fends off bullies at school. Then there’s Charlie: three years old, a “surprise” baby, the center of everyone’s world. He’s devoted to Fern, but he’s annoying, too, always getting his way, always dirty, always commanding attention. If it wasn’t for Ran, Fern’s calm and positive best friend, there’d be nowhere to turn. Ran’s mantra, “All will be well,” is soothing in a way that nothing else seems to be. And when Ran says it, Fern can almost believe it’s true. But then tragedy strikes-and Fern feels not only more alone than ever, but also responsible for the accident that has wrenched her family apart. All will not be well. Or at least all will never be the same.
I was beyond excited when I received this book (Adele picked it up in the States for me and it is hand signed by Jo Knowles… the excitement level is too big to be contained within this post), because Jo Knowles is one of my must-read authors. I was blown away by her debut novel Lessons from a Dead Girl, which I reviewed here. For me, she is essential reading.
I cannot tell you how odd I looked reading this book on the train. The cover all happy and light, while I sat in a vat of hot tears. The other commuters gave me a wide berth, to say the least.
A warning that my review will be riddled with spoilers – I’ve tried to write the review without spoilers and it just didn’t come together, or make much sense – so please do not read on if you wish to remain unspoiled. For those of you who will dash away from this review, before you go I’d implore you to put SYaH’s in your reading pile. It is a beautifully written book with a great cast of believable characters.
I did not want the book to end.
I was so engaged and enchanted with SYaH’s that once completed I spent my time imagining possible sequels and adventures for Fern. I want to be a part of Fern’s life. I want to check in with her as she grows up. I want to see her learn from life’s lesson. I want to see her family and friends again. I want to know if she’s passing maths. I want to know it all. I fell so deeply in love with the characters that I cannot ever imagine letting them go. SYaH’s became a friend. Is it weird to have a book as a friend? One who you laugh with; cry with; have in-jokes with.
I was surprised by the direction this book ended up taking. I thought the storyline would be a predictable arc, and that the real meat of the novel would be in the characters and their interactions. I was half right. Jo Knowles knows how to write characters you cannot help but love. It was the story arc that got me. I was completely unprepared for it, and as a consequence was the crazy commuter sobbing in carriage one.
You see, Jo Knowles had an older brother who was gay and sadly died of AIDS, and a classmate who committed suicide during high school. When Fern’s older brother, Holden, is bullied on the school bus I thought I knew where this story was going. I thought it was going to be a terribly sad tale of a boy who was ridiculed and abused for his sexuality, and who found solace in death. It is perhaps why I had such a reaction to this book, I was prepared for one tragedy but not another. You see, Holden doesn’t die. Instead the family wake one morning, just like any other morning, to find their youngest son, Charlie, dead in his bed. Sometime during the night he had suffered a massive brain aneurysm. I cannot tell you how destroyed I felt. Knowles had captivated Charlie’s utter joy in life, he’s sweet innocence, the depth of he’s imagination, all by page 1. So I cried and cried and cried on that carriage. It was the shock that a character had given me joy for a 100 plus pages and that I would never read that joy again. I was heartbroken.
The rest of the story revolves around a family and their grieving process. Such a raw and painful process to view, but one that resonates with anyone who has lost a loved one.
Jo Knowles’ strength are her characters. Do you know that feeling you get when you’re just waking up, and your dream hasn’t quite left you yet, so reality is a green monkey with three heads (don’t ask, I have some odd dreams). That is a Jo Knowles book; a moment in between dream and reality, where I honestly believe with all my heart that Fern, Ran and Charlie are all alive out there, just waiting to be my friend.
I’m so unbelievably sad that they’re not real; that my reality isn’t Fern and co. But every time I open that book they do become real. I hope one of your teenager’s walk away feeling like they made a friend too.