Amy Zhang's bleakly lyrical first YA novel, Falling Into Place, brought a cascade of admirers and superlatives; now comes this inexorable, intricate narrative of adolescents in all their vulnerability, idealism and savagery.
Micah and Janie have been friends forever. Well, since primary school, an eternity in teenage terms. One is withdrawn and musical; the other extrovert and artistic. They complement each other perfectly. Then Janie vanishes.
Micah wakes in hospital with head stitched and stomach half-pumped, images of fire and fear in his mind. There's no trace of his friend. Instead, there's growing uncertainty about who she was and is, what's true about her and everything else in his suddenly desolate world. Her vow: "You and me, Micah Carter. More than anything," now seems as insubstantial as air.
These aren't sweet kids, except in their yearnings and fragility. They prey and manipulate. They swig vodka, chain-smoke, swear. They break up and break down. They blaze with life (except when sulking and/or brooding). The world - and everything and every-one in it - brings instant rapture or instant wretchedness. In a world where adults are irrelevant, they're privileged, well-off and healthy, though they'd self-destruct rather than admit it.
They have their own cars and live in tall houses among tall trees. They're endlessly online or on the phone. You'll alternate between wanting to hug them and wanting to smack their legs.
As police and friends pressure him to remember, Micah's truthfulness, even his sanity, are challenged. He sags into depression and self-neglect. Loyal, loud-mouthed Dewey tries to wrench him back up. The two of them drive, drink and sit staring into the quarry while Micah battles the belief that he and Janie have done something dreadful. Even now that she's gone, she won't leave him alone.
The plot barrels towards an ending that is, well, a risk. I won't spoil it, but a neatness about it sits uneasily on such a complex and tumultuous narrative. People - adults - will complain about this novel. They'll call it negative, depraved. In fact, it's utterly honest and hugely ethical. Choices have consequences. Love and lovers are imperfect, but better than any alternative. It takes readers into dark and distressing territories. But that's a service that quality YA literature can provide: the chance to explore such issues inside the reassuringly distanced and structured framework of a fictional narrative. Bravo to Amy Zhang for providing that.
This Is Where The World Ends
by Amy Zhang (Greenwillow / HarperCollins $23)