All the bright places by Jennifer Niven
Penguin, 2015. ISBN 9780141357034
(Age: 16+) Recommended. Suicide. Grief. Mental Illness. Bullying. This is the first YA novel from an established American author, and in this poignant and heart-wrenching novel she addresses some very complex issues that have personally shaped her life. Recent YA novels, like John Green's The Fault in our stars, have addressed serious and challenging issues of life and death and this novel by Niven is in a very similar style; pathos and humour interwoven with the challenging issues of family grief, mental illness and suicide.
All the bright places begins with a suicide rescue as the two central characters meet while both are staring at the ground from the high vantage of the school bell tower. 'Is this a good day to die?' is the opening line. From this precarious start, we are introduced to Theodore Finch and Violet Markey, who are both dealing with weighty issues in their life; one who is obviously troubled by grief and the other unique in his tenuous and unusual hold on life, sanity and the world. Their encounter begins a friendship and eventually a romance that takes them wandering through their home state, all the time gathering unusual memories and experiencing the roller-coaster ride of romance, mental illness and the life-altering grief that comes with an untimely death. This sounds incredibly grim, and yet there is real humour and joy as we see life through the eyes of the charming yet strange Theodore, and the slowly blossoming Violet. The impact of grief on Violet is to rob her of creativity, and yet Theodore seems able to draw out of her a new vision of the world and of life. References connecting the central characters to the words of Virginia Woolf and other literary masters who battled (and lost to) depression, are scattered throughout the book. Relationships with adults are secondary in this book, but seen through the eyes of the young people, we get a glimpse of the difficulty that depression, mental illness and grief are for teens. The adults too, are battling their own issues, and counselling and strategies to move forward are not clear cut. Bullying and violence issues are also highlighted in the book and demonstrate that young people do not deal well with mental illness. School is not always a good place to find 'bright places'.
My concern with this book is that the issues it deals with may be too weighty for some young people to handle well. Recommended, with some trepidation, for 16+ readers, as identifying the vulnerable is not always easy, and this book may be too confronting for some, particularly for those battling their own mental health issues. However the book's transformation to film will invariably mean that younger readers will be wanting to read this too.