“Years ago, I knew and loved a boy. The experience was life-changing.”
Every now and then a book comes into your life and rocks your world completely. I haven’t felt this way since the first time I read The Fault in our Stars by John Green. I received All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven as a book proof from Penguin Australia – my first book to review! I have read it twice now and I am completely in love. It is beautiful, tragic and completely and utterly heartbreaking.
“Is today a good day to die?” This is the way Theodore Finch starts his day. As you can imagine, it sets a very interesting tone for the rest of the book. The story begins with Finch standing on the edge of the bell tower, six floors up. As he contemplates whether or not he wants to jump he spots Violet Markey getting a little too close to the edge. Violet is devastated by the death of her sister and is trying to make sense of the world without her. With the help of a school project, Finch and Violet are thrown together to discover Indiana, the state they live in. At each place they are expected to take something away from it, and leave a little something in return. As the journey progresses, Violet’s world begins to grow again as Finch’s rapidly shrinks.
While Finch is never officially diagnosed, the reader is aware that he suffers from Bipolar Disorder. He is on a constant roller coaster of emotion and Niven has captured his manic behaviours and language so well. He is just so sad. Worthless, stupid and freak are the words that haunt him; his opposition to a diagnosis all comes down to the derogatory taunts he has heard and tried to outrun his whole life and he fears the stigma attached to mental health, “the thing I know about bipolar disorder is that it’s a label. One you give crazy people.”
I admire the way Niven has approached the topic of mental health. After reading the author’s note and acknowledgments at the end of the book (which made me cry by the way) you realise just how much she wears her heart on her sleeve. She is relentless in her portrayal of schoolyard bullying and the effects it has on certain people. The cliques, the pettiness and the masks worn; Niven reminds us to never assume we know what is going on behind the facades of others. There is a vulnerability about this book, a real insight into the effects of pain and grief and how differently people respond to it. Finch’s pain is in every aspect of his life and Niven articulates his thoughts in a way that really make you stop reading and think. It breaks your heart and I think everyone will be able to relate to this book even if it is in a really small way. He wants to be ‘safe and easy in [his own] skin’, to ‘be the person [he’s] meant to be and have that be enough’ and to matter. He wants someone, mainly a grown up to notice how much pain he is in. Violet comments at one stage about feeling ordinary compared to Finch, which is ironic because that’s all he wants to be.
I could write forever about how much I love this book – I think it will become an important story in the young adult world of fiction in helping teens (and adults) understand and respond to mental health. On the bookshelf, I think it sits beautifully with The Fault in our Stars by John Green, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell and Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. As sad and confronting as it is, it is also filled with friendship, love and hope.
In short, this book is nothing short of extraordinary.
Thank you to Penguin Australia for sending out the book proof for review! All the Bright Places will be available in Australia on January 7, 2015.