Thursday 3 September 2015

#CBR7 Book 78: "I'll Give You the Sun" by Jandy Nelson

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Jude and Noah are twins and have always been very close, to the point where they seem able to communicate without words, reading each other's minds. During the summer when they are thirteen, things are changing. Getting ready to apply to a creative arts high school, Noah is elated, while Jude is less so. Noah is falling madly in love with the boy next door, while desperately trying to appear normal so no one finds out his secret, growing even more introverted, expressing himself only through his impressionistic art. Jude starts acting even more extroverted, wearing more makeup, dressing in skimpy outfits and hanging out with older boys who take her surfing or cliff-diving. The twins remain close until the day their mother appears to prefer Noah's artistic contributions to Jude's and something in their relationship fractures.

Three years later, the siblings, once so close they felt like they shared a soul, barely speak. Jude attends the creative arts school they both applied to, while Noah goes to regular high school, hanging out with his friends on the track team, seemingly no longer interested in art at all. After a series of accidents ruin every single ceramic piece Jude has produced, she gets her professor's permission to find a tutor who can teach her to carve rock. Seeking out the reclusive genius who may finally help her express her feelings in a sculpture leads to dramatic changes in the lives of both twins.

Noah narrates the sections of the book that are set during the year before the twins turned fourteen, while Jude narrates the later parts. They alternate, so that the reasons for their falling out and the truth behind all the things they are concealing from one another, the actions that led to their estrangement and the events that could help them heal are slowly portioned out by the author. The Noah-narrated sections are frantic, almost stream of consciousness on occasion, full of energy and anxiety and repressed emotions. While he loves his sister, he is also a teenage boy, and just as prone to self-obsession and narcissism as other teens. Jude is prickly, wounded and lonely. She's haunted by mistakes in her past and yearning for a chance to make amends, to repair the bond with her brother.

There is a heavy feel of magical realism running through this book, with strange and inexplicable occurrences being taken as something entirely unremarkable. Noah's art is so vividly described and there is a tangible sense that magic could indeed be involved in the lives of these teens. The kids described in these pages felt very real - not just the twins whose story we share, but their friends and the complicated social hierarchy that it's so important to fit into when you're in school. Noah's terror that the boys who often bully him or that his sporty, masculine father discover that he's gay. Jude's growing rebellion towards her mother, trying to create an identity of her own, separate from that of daughter or twin sister. The little exquisite little cruelties that only siblings who love each other deeply are able to perform, because they know better than anyone where the others' vulnerabilities lie.

I've seen this book on countless "Must read" and "Best of 2014" lists. According to Goodreads, it's won several awards, including the Michael L. Printz award for 2015. I can see why it's become so acclaimed, because it really is something special. I did, however, find the disjointed and constantly jumping narrative to be a bit confusing and got somewhat tired of the device in places. As is frequently the case when I read books with multiple narrators, set at different times - just as I've gotten really comfortable in the head of one person and things start getting really interesting, I am ripped away and forced to adjust to someone else in a different place and time. This makes me impatient and takes away from the immersive reading experience I really enjoy. It's a very minor niggle, though, and I appreciate that I was able to share both twin's head space to see what moved them and motivated them.

I also found certain plot events very predictable - this may again be because I've read a lot of books, but a lot of the "twists" seemed really rather obvious to me and I don't know if I was actually supposed to be all that surprised by them. It didn't in any way take away my enjoyment, though. The enthusiastic critics are right, this is a very good book. Just the fact that it's not part of a dystopian sci-fi trilogy or featuring any kind of supernatural creature seemed very refreshing to me.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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