Top positive review
5 people found this helpful
Brilliant in parts, dull in parts
on 26 September 2015
I feel like I could draw a graph of my star rating for this book as different points, as it lurched between a two and a five, and between utterly unputdownable and needing to force myself to keep reading.
On the first page, our hero seemingly drowns in his American home town. In the next chapter, he's waking up in an abandoned and rundown version of the British town where he lived until the age of ten. Its entirely unclear whether this is a coma dream, the afterlife, something supernatural or something else entirely. In this respect, it reminded me a bit of Ashes to Ashes/Life on Mars. At first, I was utterly fascinated to find out the answer and to see what was going to happen to the hero. However, for chapter after chapter, he doesn't meet a single other person, face any threat or real excitement, or come any closer to an answer. I don't mind stories being a bit slow-burning, but this really struggled to hold my attention.
On the other hand, this was interspersed with flashbacks (or are they something else?!) to the day leading up to the drowning. Seth's family dynamics, school life and romantic crisis felt very believable and well-depicted, and made a nice counterpoint to the strangeness of the main plot.
I persevered, and eventually,he finally meets two other teenagers, at which point, the mystery deepens ever further and the story picks up again. For the next few hundred pages, I was absolutely engrossed. And then we finally get what seems to be an answer to what's going on. I was surprised and I was intrigued, but the more I thought about it, the less convincing or internally consistent it seemed. This is one book where you really want to avoid spoilers, so I'll say no more, other than that it reminded me very heavily of a very well known film.
After this point, I sort of expected there to be further revelations or a cranking up of the ambiguity. Instead, the plot seemed to lose focus and rely on some slightly far-fetched action scenes. I was still enjoying it, but it felt like a bit of a let down after the head-spinning nature of what had come before.
As an aside, in a world where it's still relatively rare, Ness should be applauded for his attempts to have a diverse central cast. When it came to Seth, this worked brilliantly. The fact that he was gay was a key component of the plot without being the plot or being the most important thing about him. But with only two other characters to play with, the author's attempts to make them as diverse as possible (a black, overweight female domestic violence victim and a young polish immigrant) felt a little bit forced, in a way it wouldn't have done with a larger cast or a more normal setting. And while the girl was a strong, well-developed character whose race and size were simply a part of her, the polish boy, despite clearly being presented as sympathetic, felt like a bit of a strange comic caricature, with his weird speech patterns, violent temper and tragic past.
I'd highly recommend this, but for me at least, it didn't quite live up to the "best YA book ever" or "change the way you see the world" buzz I'd heard about it. Some bits were pure brilliance, but I felt it needed some serious trimming and tightening, along with more tying up of loose ends and internal consistency.