Young adult books tread a fine line between sounding believable, being enjoyable for the reader, and appealing to the (mostly adult) purchasers. Unfortunately this can sometimes result in books hitting the reader over the head with morals and lessons. Because of this, when I read a book description that is about a serious topic, I am automatically hesitant and on-guard.
It can happen in all kinds of books—have you ever read a book that you didn’t enjoy just because you knew was important? Perhaps it was socially relevant, had political value relevant, had historical significance, or literary merit, but just didn’t flow well, or the prose was overly verbose, or it maybe it just didn’t tickle your fancy?
Well, despite this negative introduction, I am really happy to say this is not the case with The World Without Us by Robin Stevenson.
What do you do when someone you care about wants you to follow him to a really dark place? Do you pull away? Do you help plan the trip? Or do you put your own life on the line in the hope that love will coax your friend away from the precipice? When Mel meets Jeremy, she thinks she has finally found someone who understands her, someone who will listen to her, someone who cares. But Jeremy has secrets that torment him, and Mel isn’t sure she can save him from his demons. All she knows is that she has to save herself.
Set in Florida, against a backdrop of anti-death-penalty activism, The World Without Us examines one girl’s choices in a world where the stakes are very high and one misstep can hurt—or even kill—you.
From the publisher, Orca Book Publishers
I received a copy of the book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. I was hesitant after reading the cover copy, but having read previous books by Robin Stevenson (such as Inferno) and Orca Books, and knowing the calibre of both author and publisher, I felt confident the book would be well done.
Melody—Mel for short—is a suburban American teenager with a fairly common backstory: She is white, from a middle-class household, and a good student. Although she is having problems with some of the girls at school, she is not the centre of attention there. Like most 16-year-olds, she butts heads with her parents sometimes, although they are hands-off and trusting of her ability to make sensible choices. On the surface, this character sounds boring. Yet Stevenson is able to make the trials of high school and the tribulations of being a teenager important, interesting, and (most importantly) not trivial. Mel and her new friend Jeremy, are not whiny, flighty caricatures of adolescence, they are well-rounded and complex characters with realistic dialogue.
The World Without Us opens on Mel and Jeremy standing on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Florida, about to jump. As the novel progresses, flash backs to events and conversations helps Mel try to make sense of how she got there, and how to continue.
The first person narrative allows Mel’s voice to shine—her thoughts take centre stage as she expresses self-doubts, insecurities, perceptions and intentions, and what is missing. The thoughts left unsaid and unrealized is where the teenage narration feel so true to character; a 16-year-old is not going to be entirely self-aware or fully decided on important issues; they don’t know the “appropriate” way to act in all situations and are fallible. I think Mel’s feelings of complicity and guilt in the situation are so normal, yet society often doesn’t acknowledge them and their validity.
The main problem I had was how relevant the subplot of Mel’s mother being involved in protests against the death penalty in Florida. This backdrop, although relevant, just felt a little too convenient. Even though her mother has firsthand experience with survivor guilt, Mel doesn’t discuss the issues with her mom. A 16-year-old who doesn’t talk to their mom about feelings? Sounds about right. But knowing what her mom does, and having prior experience with issues of life and death did allow Mel insight not typically afforded a teenager.
The ending was a bit abrupt, but I appreciated that it wasn’t didactic or overly conclusive. It felt more realistic to not tie up every lose end, although it concluded with a hopeful note.
Robin Stevenson was a social worker and counselor before she began writing full-time. On her blog, she states, “Over the years, I worked with many people who were suicidal. I talked with young adults who had lost parents, siblings and friends and were struggling to understand. And I lost a client to suicide. I went to her funeral and, probably like everyone else who knew her, wondered what I could have said or done to prevent her death. I wondered what I had missed.”
This may be a difficult read for some, especially those who have struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, but I think it is an incredibly important addition to young adult literature. Books can open up doors to talk about these issues. Novels can help readers be more compassionate and/or seek help if needed by enabling readers to identify with characters and their emotions.