Sunday, October 6, 2013
by Han Nolan
Reviewed by Sesana
Five out of five stars
Fifteen-year-old Jason has fallen upon bad times—his mother has died and his father has succumbed to mental illness. As he tries to hold his crazy father and their crumbling home together, Jason relies on a host of imaginary friends for guidance as he stumbles along trying not to draw attention to his father’s deteriorating condition.
Oh, this book. Is there a word for a book that breaks your heart into tiny, tiny pieces? My favorite book in all the world is a book like that. So is this one. And it did it in an entirely believable way.
So let's count the ways Han Nolan stomped on my heart. There's the main character, Jason. His mother has passed away, leaving him to take care of his father, who is seriously mentally ill, and getting worse. They're drowning under the medical bills left behind when Jason's mother died. And Jason is dedicated to keeping himself invisible, unnoticed. Because if he is noticed, his father will be, too, and they'll take him away. Again. Not enough? Jason finds himself slotted into a support group at his school, for teens going through a rough time. There's Pete, and his drug-addicted father. There's Haze, whose parents are going through a very nasty divorce. Nasty enough that his father will write "whore" in huge letters all over the family house, and never consider how that will affect his twelve-year old daughter. And then there's Shelby. Shelby's mother is dying, rapidly. She has ALS, but the specifics of her illness matter much less than the fact that Shelby is losing her mother in pieces.
I felt for all of them, because they're decent and believably flawed and care about each other. Jason will probably be the character that most people connect to most strongly. He is the main character, even the viewpoint character. It seems like he just can't catch a break, and that things are getting worse and worse for him and for his father. And his one overriding, even overwhelming, motivation throughout the entire book is to take care of his father. But for me, I felt most connected to Shelby, for personal reasons. When she talks about how much she loves her mother, how lost she'll feel when she's gone, how she already misses her, but that sometimes she wishes it were all over already, for her mother's sake because she's suffering, but also for her own sake... I understand. I understand because I felt exactly the same way when I was eighteen and nineteen and losing my dad. For those of us who have been there, or are there, Shelby might well end up as the star.
All of the above doesn't mean that this is 300+ pages of downer. There's some humor, and more hope. As rough as things are with their families, Jason, Pete, Haze, and Shelby all still care about them, and about each other. There are no easy answers, no simple solutions. At the end of the book, everybody's circumstances have changed, probably for the better, but their problems aren't over, and Nolan never pretends that they are. But maybe they'll be able to handle them better. It isn't exactly a happily ever after, which is good. A neat, sunny ending wouldn't be fair to the rest of the book.
So yes, this book did hurt me. But it did it honestly, by telling a realistically tough story about characters that were very likeable, very easy to care about. That's a good thing, but I'm going to need something much lighter to follow it up.