CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 36. . . .May 20, 2016
Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2016.
201 pp., trade pbk., EPUB & PDF, $12.99 (pbk.), $8.99 (EPUB), $12.99 (PDF).
ISBN 978-1-4597-3231-9 (pbk), ISBN 978-1-4597-3433-3 (EPub) ISBN 978-1-4597-3432-6 (PDF).
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Jocelyn Reekie.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Even before I realized what was happening, the bridge took over my brain. When I was falling asleep at night I’d see it in my mind until I wanted to stuff my eye sockets full of cotton balls to block out the image. I’d catch glimpses of it during the day too, but it wasn’t as obvious, just something hovering at the edge of my peripheral vision. Whenever I had a chance, I started going to the bridge. I’d walk across the city and stare at it from different angles: from up high on the riverbank, from below, from the sidewalk leading across it. But if I was alone, I never got too close.
In a note at the beginning of her latest book, award-winning author, Christina Kilbourne, writes:
Detached was a hard book to write. In fact, I didn’t want to write it at first. But I was approached by a mother whose teenage son had committed suicide, and she wanted a book she could use in her outreach efforts....
And in a paragraph further down, the issue touches Kilbourne’s own family.
Recently a friend of my daughter attempted suicide. She is an energetic and outgoing teenager who excels at sports. When my shock subsided, I knew without a doubt that teen suicide is an important topic and Detached is an important book. Even though I still have misgivings about raising the subject so publicly, I know it has to happen. If we aren’t talking about suicide, who is?”
Suicide is a complex and difficult issue. There are numerous reasons behind it, and numerous ways it is approached. Like the sticky tentacles of an octopus, the ramifications of a suicide can invade and change the survivors’ lives in ways no one could anticipate. In Detached, Kilbourne explores and exposes some of them.
Using multiple voices, Kilbourne draws readers inside the bleak world of 16-year-old Anna who wants to die; the seemingly stable but increasingly off-kilter world of Anna’s family, and the rigid world of Anna’s best friend, Aliya, (spoiler alert) whose life is affected by a suicide that has remained buried all of Aliya’s life. Little does Anna know, her own situation and family dynamics are influenced by a long-buried secret as well.
Kilbourne is well-versed in what makes teens tick, how they talk, how they interact. She uses her knowledge to paint such a complete and compelling picture of Anna’s interior life that, at times, I felt myself wanting to take hold of the young protagonist and shake her awake, all while knowing no such action would have any good effect, or any effect, on a real-life Anna at all. At times, I almost gave up hope and quit reading, but inside the darkness the author has inserted light, and that kept me turning the pages.
In spite of Anna’s obsession with dying and her continuing search for a way to successfully end her life, she is a person who clearly sheds light where she walks. Besides being a gifted artist, Anna has several loyal friends and a family that loves her. Her interactions with her brother and with a boy named Kyle are real and often warm and ignite sparks of hope. Other characters, such as Joe and Kyle, are easy to like, and one feels for and cheers for them as Joe struggles to understand the sister he loves and Kyle strives to get through to the girl he has reason to believe doesn’t know he exists. Anna’s parents are also sympathetic characters. Every mother will connect with Anna’s, who, when Anna is recovering from what is unknown by her family but later discovered to be a failed suicide attempt on Anna’s part, says, “In that moment I would have traded everything I owned or had ever owned, everything I would ever own, to guarantee my daughter, my Anna, would always be safe.” Unfortunately, there are no such guarantees available to parents.
For mystery lovers, the book is driven by mystery. Anna’s all-consuming wish to die runs smack up against her ‘perfect’ life. Besides being talented, having a family that is behind her, and loyal friends, she is pretty, intelligent, and lives in a very nice place. She says herself, many times, there is no earthly reason she should want to die. But being able to live is beyond her. True, her grandparents were killed in a senseless accident a year before, and Anna’s grandmother, who was as artistic as Anna is, and was the only person with whom Anna ever felt she was truly connected, has been lost to her. But that loss was not the beginning of her wish to die. She tells readers she has never felt connected to the world, and the vacuum that has been sucking out parts of her ever since she can remember has worked its way through her entire being, and she is now completely empty inside. She doesn’t understand what has gone wrong, and neither do we.
In Anna’s efforts to die, her intelligence works for her desire and against the odds she will survive, as she is able to find plausible explanations for each failed attempt and keep her family and friends ignorant of her reality. Only her brother Joe and Aliya voice suspicions about the changes they’ve seen in Anna and the fact she might be suicidal—suspicions that are quickly dismissed by everyone else.
While the mystery drives the book forward, there are times I found the author got stuck in making sure readers ‘get’ the impact a successful suicide can have on those close to the person who commits it. Through Aliya’s relationship with her mother—which seems too stilted and stagnant to be entirely credible—and Aliya’s and other characters’ speeches, Kilbourne sometimes indulges in hammering home the point rather than trusting readers to get it via the reactions of Anna’s family and friends to the events that occur.
After a journey of exhausting emotion, the ending, for me, falls somewhat flat. The sensibilities of humans (and the marketing strategies of publishers) demand answers for things there are sometimes no answers for, and I felt like this ending had been tacked on to satisfy those things rather than that its being an inescapable result of everything that had gone before. Though the explanation for Anna’s state of mind is reasonable enough, it felt too pat. Her relationship with Kyle also becomes stereotypical.
That said, Detached is a brave book. It will provide good material for classroom discussion about this difficult subject. I don’t know if anyone contemplating suicide would read it, but if one person who reads it suddenly sees and understands signs and symptoms that indicate someone connected with them is suicidal, and they are moved to take action, the book will have done its job. And that trumps any reservations I might have about endings and stereotypes.
Jocelyn Reekie is a writer, editor and publisher in Campbell River, BC.
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