CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 9. . . .October 28, 2011
My Beating Teenage Heart.
C.K. Kelly Martin.
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2011.
275 pp., hardcover & ebook, $19.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-385-67042-5 (hc.), ISBN 978-0-385-67042-5 (ebook).
Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.
Review by Ann Ketcheson.
The first moment is utter darkness. The absence of thought, the absence of everything. An absence that stretches infinitely backwards and threatens to smother your sanity – if there was a you, that is. But there's not. I am nothing and no one. I never was. I must not have been because otherwise, wouldn't I remember?
Don't look back. Don't let the darkness inside you.
If I'm talking to myself, there must be a me. That in itself is a revelation. I exist. The second before was starkly empty and now I'm swimming with celestial stars. They're as silent as stones but they shimmer, glimmer and shine. I think. . . .I think I can hear them after all but not in a way I've heard anything before.
The sound isn't music and it's not whispers. I don't have words to describe it. If teardrops, blinding sunshine and limitless knowledge combined to make a noise, it would be the one the stars hum while I float amongst them. I don't know much, but this is something I'm certain I'm learning for the first time: the stars know things that we don't and they always have.
And then, just as my mind begins to expand with questions
-who am I?
-where is this?
-how am I...
I am falling, plummeting through the glittering darkness at a speed that would normally make your stomach drop. Instinct kicks in and makes me throw out my hands to break my fall. Only, I don't have any – no hands and no stomach either.
Ashlyn Baptiste might be in a coma. Or perhaps she is dead. She has no body any more, but her mind, her consciousness, her soul, has been given the task of being a sort of guardian angel for 16-year-old Breckon Cody, a complete stranger. Breckon certainly needs someone or something to support him since he is overwhelmed by grief after the recent death of his younger sister Skylar. Ashlyn is determined to watch over Breckon and figure out a way to help him despite the fact he can neither see nor hear her.
Although there are paranormal aspects to this novel, with one main character existing only in spirit, the book goes far deeper than that. C.K. Kelly Martin, a critically acclaimed author for young adults, has written a novel about death and grieving and how humans attempt to cope when such a catastrophe takes over their lives.
The chapters alternate between the two main characters, Ashlyn and Breckon. Readers see that Breckon's grief is apt to consume him. He tries various coping mechanisms – booze, sleeping pills, sex, cutting himself, thoughts of suicide – with little success. Throughout much of the novel, he blames himself for his sister's death and it is only near the end of the book that readers find out what really happened to Skylar.
Ashlyn is a consciousness who is not embodied in a physical form. Gradually bits of her memory return until, at the end of the book, readers realize that she is, in fact, dead and that she has a very tenuous link with Breckon from the moments just before she passed away. In her spiritual form, she, at first, merely watches Breckon like some sort of ghostly peeping Tom. But she soon realizes how needy and vulnerable he is and does everything she can to help him and steer him toward the people who love him and can provide support.
There are many secondary characters who are well-drawn, believable and critical to the plot. Breckon's male friends aren't sure just how to treat him after his sister's funeral but stay with him and help where they can, even if that means getting him out to parties. Their support, if somewhat misguided, is necessary to keep Breckon busy and involved. Breckon's girlfriend, Jules, also has a vital role. She alternately tries to be close and provide comfort or to back away and give Breckon space. His depression and the extremity of his grief cause Breckon to treat her badly occasionally, but, in the end, they are reconciled.
The adults in the book are more than mere bit players. Teachers at Breckon's high school offer encouragement and support as well as giving him breaks on assignments and understanding when his classroom behaviour falls apart. The boss at Brekcon's part-time job also provides adult support and a place to get away, however temporarily, from his grief. Breckon's parents are realistic pictures of the terrible grief incurred after the loss of a child. While trying to be strong and to get life back to normal, they, too, are under such stress that they seek counselling. As well, a counsellor is provided for Breckon who eventually sees her, despite many misgivings about the entire process.
My Beating Teenage Heart is powerful on many levels. Is there life after death? Do we all have someone from the afterlife watching over us and perhaps trying to guide us? Martin does not make these questions "spooky" nor does the book have particularly religious overtones. She simply presents Ashlyn as a departed soul who returns to earth in order to be of help to someone desperately in need of it.
The novel looks at friendships, relationships and love and their role in assisting us when we are most distraught and lack the strength to help ourselves. Martin pokes and prods at the wounds left by grief and helps readers feel and understand Breckon's emotions. Yet, while the book is realistic and very dark in places, the overwhelming sense as one closes the cover is positive. Breckon will eventually heal. Ashlyn has completed her work here on earth. And maybe, just maybe, when we see the stars at night, there is our own Ashlyn waiting and willing to help us through the tough times.
What a wonderful image! What a wonderful novel!
Ann Ketcheson is a retired high school teacher-librarian and teacher of English and French who lives in Ottawa, ON.
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