Friday, September 17, 2010

Glimpse by Carol Lynch Williams

"An edge-of-the-seat thriller written in sharp, glinting shards of words.  Fantastic!"
Tim Wynne-Jones

Glimpse is an example of the verse novel at its finest.  It follows the emotional trajectory of 12-year-old Hope, who one day walks in on her older sister Lizzie holding a gun, thinking about shooting herself.  Lizzie ends up hospitalized with near-catatonic depression, and Hope is desperate to understand why.

The love between these sisters is beautifully realized and totally convincing.  It is the light in a very dark story, because, as we slowly realize, Lizzie is being badly abused by her mother, a prostitute who is forcing Lizzie to follow in her footsteps.  Hope has been kept sheltered by Lizzie, which is how her mother has been keeping Lizzie compliant (she threatens that if Lizzie tells anyone, she will press Hope into service as well).  There is a strong quality of protectiveness in the relationship between the two girls, and Hope has many memories of being protected by Lizzie's extraordinary courage, which is a strong contrast to their mother's self-centeredness.

a long time ago, 
took us to the river.

I was little,
just learning to swim.
Momma fastened an orange
Styrofoam bubble around
my waist to keep me afloat....

I love my babies,
Momma said.
Run into the water, Hope...

Momma was quiet a moment, 
then she said,
My God, they're moccasins.
Run, Hope.
Run, Liz.

The snakes must have
seen us by then. They
turned in our direction.

Momma didn't pick a thing up.
Not the umbrella, 
not the towel she sat on, 
Not even that sweet smelling
olive oil.

She just ran,
leaving me and Liz behind.

Liz hollered after her.
Wait for us.
Liz grabbed
me by the hand
but all of a sudden
I couldn't even move.

Lizzie said.
Come on.

She tried to pick me up,
but that bubble
made it hard.

Now the snakes were
on land and coming fast,
so fast,
and I couldn't move.

Come on, Liz, Hope,
Momma called.
She was a good ways away.

The rain kept coming down
all silver looking.
It ran in my eyes.

Just leave Hope there,
Momma called.
Her voice was scared.
Leave her and run to me.

Liz grabbed the belt 
of the bubble and 
pulled me along, 
like you might a pup 
tha didn't want to follow.

Liz screamed, 

Now the snakes were so close
I could see their eyes.
One opened its mouth
and I saw the white cotton.

Liz screamed at me.
And somehow
I could move.

We ran


Williams' storytelling is spare and beautiful.  As glimpses of Hope's memories and observations accumulate,  she begins to understand that there is a secret between their mother and Lizzie which is somehow at the root of Lizzie's despair.  Williams conveys Hope's fear of learning the nature of this secret and knowing what Lizzie has gone through, and her guilt as she slowly realizes that Lizzie had been obliquely asking for help without Hope understanding.  Hope in the end becomes her sister's protector, unveiling the truth through the diary which Lizzie had left for her to find and confronting their predatory mother, who flees rather than face the authorities.

Glimpse is a strong book that sometimes hurts to read, a book where home is "haunted" by bad dreams that turn out to be real.  It's a page-turner which skillfully captures the point of view of a 12-year-old enmeshed in frighteningly adult situations.  But there is a tenderness to this book all the same.  This is the kind of book where you feel that the author cares deeply about her characters, and you're glad, because you care too.  I'm glad that Williams leavened the ending with some surrogate parent figures stepping in;  a kindly neighbour to foster the girls, a caring psychiatrist to help both sisters heal emotionally.  I was so invested in Hope and, through her, in Lizzie, that I would have found the story unbearably bleak otherwise.  It is, in the end, a story about love, about those who are capable of giving it and those who aren't.  It's a story I could easily re-read many times.  I won't forget it soon. 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Me & Death, an Afterlife Adventure by Richard Scrimger

"Do you know what a ghost is, Jim?  A ghost is a guy who was a piece of crap when he was alive."
"But you weren't!"  I said.  "You were the bomb.  I thought you were the coolest!"
"I lied, I stole, I hurt people.  I let them down.  I was a bad guy, Jim."
I struggled with this.  "Yeah, but you were a good bad guy," I said.

Jim is a 14-year-old junior gangster who lives in Roncesvalles with his alcoholic mother and his unpleasant, sometimes crazy-seeming sister.  He skips school, steals, insults his neighbours,  kicks cats, and bullies a kid named Lloyd.  Nothing much to like here.  So who could be surprised when Jim gets hit by a car and sees the ghost of Tadeusz, who used to collect rents along Roncy "with a baseball bat", waiting to teach him what the afterlife is like for bad guys.   Tadeusz kicks off a Scrooge-type reform program for Jim, complete with ghosts, visions of the past, and important life lessons.  Jim's sure to emerge from his coma a changed person--or is he?

I find Scrimger as a writer is kind of hit-and-miss (as a person he's hysterical, if you get a chance to see him talk, definitely go) but this latest book is big-time wonderful.  It's emotionally compelling in a way that I don't think he's ever been before. Jim's voice is so authentic. You can see that he's never been exposed to any, shall we say,  alternate moral paradigms.   Scrimger's writing is always funny, that's his trademark, but here it's funny in a darker and older way than in his previous books. I think Scrimger is developing a wicked gift for characterization.   His ghosts are full-bodied, not flat like Dickens' are.   They have backstories and afterlives of their own.  And unlike Dickens' Scrooge, when Jim wakes up, he's got a lot more to do than just hand out geese and Christmas bonuses.  He has some scary amends to make. 

I sound like I'm doing a bit of Dickens bashing here, but I don't mean to. I love A Christmas Carol and used to re-read it every year before Christmas when I was a teen and a long time afterwards.  All I'm saying is, Scrimger takes the story, runs with it and makes it his own.  And I think he's done a great job.