Book Review: All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven

cv_all_the_bright_placesBooks for teenagers which address suicide have to be really well done to succeed.

There has been a school of thought which suggests that such a topic is not suitable for them to read about. I don’t agree with that. I believe that teenagers should be able to read anything they wish – as should everyone. That said, I am still thinking about whether this is a book I’d put in my school library. I’ll come back to this thought later. (And no, in my opinion choosing not to include a book in the school library is NOT equal to censorship. The book will be obtainable from public libraries and booksellers. But that is another whole discussion and not for now!)

The book is fairly well-written. It’s witty – but this does not diminish the intensity of the story. It’s compassionate, but not overly sentimental. It’s real, but it does not try hard to get there. But there are some problems.

The protagonists, Violet and Finch, are both troubled kids. Finch comes from a deeply dysfunctional place – he’s really clever, kind, but suffers from some kind of psychiatric disorder which makes him “asleep” for long periods at a time. When he is “awake”, he needs to be entirely engaged in whatever he is doing, because “ the thing about being Awake is that everything in you is alive and aching and making up for lost time”. His family circumstances are awful, he is quite a loner, and also recognisably a troubled kid.

However, what exactly is wrong is not addressed, nor is there much help available, and I find this somewhat unsettling. Surely a book which deals with such a difficult subject as suicide could have found a way to address the underlying problems that cause this to be a possible solution.

Violet is a popular, talented girl, one of the “in-group” at school. Her family is far more functional than Finch’s, but her story is one of loss. Her older sister died in a car crash and this has left Violet bereft.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the storyline, but will say that Violet and Finch form an unlikely pair who support and indeed love one another. This makes the end of the story all the more poignant.

There is indeed a message in this book and I think that overall Jennifer Niven delivers it reasonably well. However I am left with the feeling that the message given is not one that I would endorse. To me this book – although it attempts to explain and give reasons for everything – ultimately does not succeed, for me.

I thought it was well-crafted, and could not fault it on many levels, but to attempt to explain suicide and the lasting effects on those left behind by the statement “it’s not what we take, it’s what we leave” is a vast over-simplification, and at some level I find that deeply disturbing and not particularly helpful to kids who may be at risk.

I said I’d come back to the decision about putting this in my school library. I am still deciding. I’ll give it to some of my senior students to read and take their advice.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman, Information Centre Manager, Scots College

All the Bright Places
by Jennifer Niven
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9780141357034

Ed’s note: For another book which deals with teen suicide, I recommend Dear Vincent, by Mandy Hager.

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