Bookmarked: I Was Here



Two of my fastest - and most memorable - reads of last summer were Ava Dellaira's Love Letters to the Dead (spotlighted in a recent post) and Gayle Forman's If I Stay. Consequently, when I heard the premise for the latter author's newest release, and saw striking parallels to the former novel, I was intrigued. Then the book arrives, and on the back is an endorsement from Stephen Chbosky… I'm almost sold. However, it takes reading the work yourself to confirm this - I am someone who is staunchly opposed to adopting popular opinion as law (*cough* Wolf Hall *cough*) So, was I sold? In short, I turned the final page at 3:30am, having covered a good two thirds of the book in one sitting - not interrupted by a single tea break.  That is very telling. Yet the more specific deals of this literary transaction, shows why it is a book is worth purchasing. 

It centres the character of Cody, a teenage girl who, on the cusp of adulthood, sees her world upended by the death (suicide) of her best friend, Meg. I do feel writing "best friend" is somewhat of a disservice, for reading the novel it is clear that their relationship was more akin to that of sisters. This only makes the sense of loss, and unravelling compassion for Cody, all the more acute. In the aftermath of the death, it is also Cody who shoulders many of the burdens involved, namely going to Meg's college and rationalising all the belongings she left behind. 

My one criticism of the book is that the opening struggled to take off, and was teetering towards generic. I struggled to engage with Cody at the very beginning, and feared the book could be a regurgitation of YA tropes. Moreover, I also found it difficult to warm to the characters introduced at Meg's college, and I am a very character-driven reader. Nonetheless, my faith in Forman (and Mr Chbosky) saw me continue. For me the turning point came at Chapter 12, where a series of catalysing events commenced my  marathon reading session. 

The plot was this story's accelerator; nonetheless, ultimately it was Cody made me want to stay for the long-haul. She did remind me at times of Dellaira's Laurel, particularly given their situations in having lost a sibling (for Cody and Meg essentially are). However, as I warmed to Laurel this was a welcome similarity. The key is striking a delicate balance between focusing on the subject of the story - the death itself, and details of the person lost - but also giving life to the true protagonist. 

Cody stood her ground in the story; the novel contains frequent references to Cody and Meg's "symbiotic" relationship yet, the more I learnt about Meg, the more I found myself respecting Cody's differences. In response to Cody's questioning of "[is there] even a me without her?", by the end of the novel her narrative represents a resounding yes. Cody is real; her no-nonsense outlook and unwavering resolve are traits to be admired, and come into their own for the plot's climatic end. Nevertheless, the character I found myself most drawn to was Ben; far more than meets the eye, the synchronicity with his and Cody's backstories also provided a subplot that prevented the book being too narrowly focused. By the end, part of me did wish that more time could have been dedicated to this storyline, as I felt it would have allowed for more character development. While I liked Cody, I didn't fall in love with her as I did characters such as Chbosky's Charlie. 

It is, at times, a highly unsettling read - any convincing story on this subject inevitably will be, and Foreman's storytelling skills far transcend the majority of YA fiction writers. The more that Cody uncovers regarding Meg's death, the more disquieting it is. It didn't quite have the suspense of We Need to Talk About Kevin and Gone Girl, but it was enough to see me, at one point, physically recoil from the book's pages. This book does needs to be approached with caution; if you have been personally affected by suicide, either through the death of a loved one, or have yourself experienced suicidal thoughts, the second half of this book in particular could be highly distressing. Yet the author is very careful in how she approaches it, and any romanticised notions of suicide postulated by certain characters, are swiftly countered. 

This novel carried two powerful messages for me, which the Author's Note at the end also evidences. 

Depression Does Not Discriminate


This is a pervading message of many mental health charities and campaigns, yet carries so much weight in Forman's novel. Recounting her experience of writing an article about suicide, she describes how, during her research, she found she "kept forgetting [she] was reporting a piece on suicide". The basis for Meg's character, a real-life girl named Suzy, adds further poignancy to the story we receive in I Was Here. It is a sobering reminder that, no matter how full of life and light a person may seem, illnesses such as depression do not discriminate. 

As someone with experience of depression (both personal, and having heard other people's stories), I can absolutely attest to this. It always provokes, for me, the Perks of Being a Wallflower quote, where Charlie talks about pain as relative: "even if somebody has it much worse, that doesn't really change the fact that you have what you have". The following analogy used by Cody's mother is a prime example of why stigma regarding regarding mental health exists today:
"you had a pile of rocks, and you cleaned them up pretty and made a necklace. Meg got jewels, and she hung herself with them".   
Nonetheless, what Forman does stress in her Afterward is the importance of accepting help. This is something I am a strong advocate for; mental illness is not a choice, but choosing recovery can be. Whether this is through therapy (for which there are a multitude of avenues) or medication, addressing the illness as you would any physical condition, is essential. Just as with Cancer and chemotherapy, Diabetes and insulin or, to use the analogy Forman provides, pneumonia and antibiotics, it is accepting the medicine. It will not be a magical cure, but it offers a better prognosis. The alternative, one that both Suzy and Forman's Meg took, is the polar opposite of this.


The Online Underworld  


Charities such as beat provide an
invaluable resource for those struggling.
The internet can be both life-saving and taking. With the ever-growing issue surrounding mental health funding (particularly the UK), the availability of support online can be even more of an important lifeline. I have found online resources - from websites such as Beat, to the blogging community, an invaluable tool for my own recovery; however, I have also learnt the necessity of exercising caution. For every 'recovery' tag, there is a 'thin' tag or a 'depression' one, and the former is at risk of being exploited, by those who use the latter.

I have never used or read any form of pro mental illness website, but I am aware of their existence. Fearne Cotton presented a disturbing, yet powerful, documentary on the prevalence of 'pro-ana' websites, and the need to address them. Author and Journalist Emma Woolf, meanwhile, herself a recoverer from anorexia, has condemned their existence; I saw her do so in person at the University of Exeter last year.

photo credit: huffingtonpost.co.uk
In I Was Here, Foreman uncovers the world of 'suicide support sites', which are anything but supportive in their propagation of suicide. This is the element of the novel that I earlier referenced in terms of approaching with caution. The book includes 'responses' from people advocating suicide, which are unsettling to read. Nonetheless, by including them in her story, Foreman brings awareness to their existence in a negative context, just as both Emma Woolf and Fearne Cotton have done. It is a disturbing issue that needs to be combatted. At no point did I feel these sites being glamorised in any way; on the contrary, they left me quite sickened and Foreman's Afterward is emphatic in its condemnation of them. The picture on the left was used for a 2014 Suicide Prevention campaign, and acts as a powerful counter to the pro-suicide rhetoric of choice. It may be your choice to die, but it is also your to live. To see that I Am Here  does not fall prematurely into the past tense. As Foreman writes in the end of her book "tell someone". Follow the advice you would, if diagnosed with any physical illness.

****

This is definitely a book to mark out on the shelf. As The Shock of the Fall did with Schizohrenia, it sheds light on an all-too-often misunderstood topic. However, subject matter aside the characters and story absolutely stand by their own merit. At times I felt the author could have gone further with character development, especially Ben, but overall this is not a novel to be pigeonholed in the 'YA Fiction' box. It more than holds its own. 

The book can be purchased here

A list of suicide prevention resources can be found here, and the Samaritans number in the UK is: 07845 790 9090. 

2 comments:

  1. I ordered this book on Monday and look forward to reading it now. Thanks for the review!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Sophie, thank you so much for sharing your thought in such an in depth review of I Was Here. I also enjoyed reading the novel, but found it could have been a bit longer. Especially when Meg's parents reveal the true reason for Meg's suicide, I found it rushed and a bit out of the blue. I mean imagine Forman would have told the reader a bit earlier, than the entire plot and actions of characters would have changed and given the plot a rounder character in general.

    Happy Friday, speak soon and I'm glad I found your blog through bloglovin xxx

    Caz | Lunch Break Adventures

    ReplyDelete

UA-50715857-2