by Julia Hoban

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation, with smart reviews for modern readers on Sirius XM Book Radio. The book is Willow by Julia Hoban.

Okay, by a show of hands, who wants to read a book about a depressed, brooding teenage girl with self harm issues? Turns out, plenty of people. As I told Julia, I initially was not one of them. I kind of drug my heels a little on picking Willow up — after all, I was a brooding, sullen teenager — without the self harm fortunately, and I freely confess I was kind of a pill to be around. Even if there’s nothing wrong it’s a potentially horrible time of life, with emotional minefields everywhere. As a teen, you’ve got the adult physicality — maybe — but no language, no context. And if something bad really does happen — well, why would I want to go back?

The reason is the book. Once I set my own neatly packed baggage aside and began to read Julia Hoban’s spare, elegant language, I understood that Willow wasn’t a sulking spoiled mall princess, but a young person living in an alternate, dark reality where she can see life going on around her, while her own life has stopped. It stopped the day the car she was driving crashed, killing her parents. She couldn’t feel more responsible, and she can’t set down the stones of grief and guilt. Hoban gives Willow one sliver of relief in the form of self harm — in this case, cutting — which becomes less glamorous and trendy (if it really ever was) as we watch Willow methodically slice herself apart and then bind herself together.

Watching Willow’s transformation, as her walls slowly come down, feels utterly natural, probably because of the slightly unusual tense — third person present. We see and feel what she sees when she sees it, and when something good comes along it’s just as a big surprise to her as to the reader. Speaking of which, my only small quibble with Hoban’s choices is the character of the young man Willow meets that helps her on her journey — he’s just a little more Prince Charming than I recall boys being at that age. But you know what? The poor girl deserved a break and I’m glad she got one.

The slowly unfurling story, while ultimately hopeful and transformative, does the characters a great service by acknowledging there are no easy fixes and nothing — not the love of a good man, not being heard and finally understood — nothing cures the disease of self mutilation overnight. Willow may be restored to the world around her by the end of the book, but we understand — and we can hope that she figures out — that in a world of things that want to hurt you, you shouldn’t have to hurt yourself.

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