I've been in something of a heavy duty reading/writing/creating slump since July. But this week I read Darren Groth's Are You Seeing Me?, which was a completely spontaneous purchase on National Bookshop Day, and I loved it.
For a summary, check out Goodreads. In the meantime, here's a hastily-scribbled impressionistic list of reasons why I think this book is great:
1) it's beautifully-written. From the get-go, the prose is lovely -- gentle, literary, but never over-written. Here's a taste, from page 37, as twins Perry and Justine step out into the Canadian sun for the first time and stop to take a selfie: "The snap is more than money -- it is perfect. Our eyes are ablaze. Our grins are starlight. Despite the fifteen-hour flight and lack of sleep, we have been captured at some sort of fission point; the release permitting the very best of our past, present and future to burst through for a nanosecond. As I stand there, spellbound, breathing the gluggy Vancouver air, the photograph materialises in other places, other times..." On top of that, it's a good story. It's possible to have great words but a bad tale; happily, this is not one of those books. It works.
2) it's contemporary YA literature that manages to avoid cliches and tropey-ness. First off, there's not a love triangle in sight. In fact, there's only a glimmer of romance and what's there is honest, real, and not composed of pink-tinged warm fuzzies. Secondly, there's very little space given to what the characters look like or wear, or their appraisal of others' appearances. The story isn't about school or work or rivalry or the boy next door (none of which are wrong, all of which have been done a thousand times before). Finally, at 19 years old and functioning as the primary carer for her brother, Justine is the exact definition of YA: a young adult. She is wrestling with responsibility, decisions about the future, relationships, the way others perceive her brother's disability. Her experiences are ones readers will relate to no matter what their age.
3) Perry and Justine live in Brisbane, and there is something so I-don't-know-what-it-is-but-I-like-it about reading a book with links to a place you know and love. It's a feeling akin to belonging, or even ownership. Having looked out onto the same bridge, same river, same bookstore cafe that the characters are also seeing makes their story that much more real, more tangible. And for me, it brought up all my fledgling feelings of Queensland patriotism, which have taken eight years to generate.
4) it punched me right in the heart. My little brother has down syndrome, so I get what it's like to walk through life with an answer waiting on the edge of your tongue, ready to explain away anything that people find unusual or unsettling. There's 17 years and three other siblings between me and him, but the others all live away and I live right next door, and that feeling of the two of us out to face the world is something I can relate to deeply. Sometimes I have dreams of disasters happening and the one person I always try to find in the midst of the tsunami or the earthquake, the one person I have to reach to make sure he's safe, is my brother Tain. I could understand Justine's fierce love for her brother because I feel that for my brother, too. At the same time, I felt a little envious of these characters. Perry -- who narrates part of the story -- is articulate and expressive. He's able to explain himself clearly. He has defined tastes and interests, special skill sets, and knowledge that can impress others. There is no external sign of his disability. Though people might be startled or feel uncomfortable because of the way Perry responds to situations, he can also blend into a crowd. No one can look at him and, simply by evaluating his physical characteristics, make assumptions about his abilities, his personality, his worth. I envied that in Perry and wished momentarily for some of those things for my brother. This was a new experience for me, but at the same time it reminded me that things always look different from the outside looking in.
5) finally, it inspired me to love better, which is one of the best things a book can do.