Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: WILD AWAKE by Hilary T. Smith

Things you earnestly believe will happen while your parents are away:

1. You will remember to water the azaleas.
2. You will take detailed, accurate messages.
3. You will call your older brother, Denny, if even the slightest thing goes wrong.
4. You and your best friend/bandmate Lukas will win Battle of the Bands.
5. Amid the thrill of victory, Lukas will finally realize you are the girl of his dreams.

Things that actually happen:

1. A stranger calls who says he knew your sister.
2. He says he has her stuff.
3. What stuff? Her stuff.
4. You tell him your parents won’t be able to—
5. Sukey died five years ago; can’t he—
6. You pick up a pen.
7. You scribble down the address.
8. You get on your bike and go.
9. Things . . . get a little crazy after that.*
*also, you fall in love, but not with Lukas.

Both exhilarating and wrenching, Hilary T. Smith’s debut novel captures the messy glory of being alive, as seventeen-year-old Kiri Byrd discovers love, loss, chaos, and murder woven into a summer of music, madness, piercing heartbreak, and intoxicating joy.
Once again, I find myself not being entirely sure what to say about a book. As such, this will probably be a short review, though not entirely in a bad way, as is sometimes the case.

I thought about splitting this review into a list that mimics the synopsis. It's a format that I would normally enjoy. It would start off something like this:

Things that I thought I would find in Wild Awake:

1. A contemporary story about a girl who "finds herself"
2. Some guy named Lukas who will probably end up being a jerk
3. A flimsy mystery surrounding the dead sister
4. Typical summer hijinks
5. A boy with whom Kiri falls in love
6. Kisses

Things that I actually found in Wild Awake:

1.

And this is where I have to stop, because I'm not sure how to finish the second list. I'm not exactly sure what actually happened in this book, and I'm not sure how to talk about the things that I'm sure about, due to spoilery reasons.

Let's start back at the beginning. There's a girl named Kiri Byrd. She's seventeen, a classical pianist, and also plays in a band with her crush Lukas. Nothing has happened with Lukas, because he doesn't want to mess up the dynamics of the band (which has two different names, depending on who you talk to). She is left home alone for the summer, because her older brother Denny is at Princeton and her parents are on a second honeymoon of sorts.

Then she gets a call from a drunk named Doug who claims to have the belongings of her elder sister Sukey. Sukey, the sister no one talks about; Sukey, the one who died in an "accident," presumably a car accident, though Kiri never asked; Sukey, the wild child; Sukey, the painter; Sukey, the free spirit, the exact opposite of quiet and responsible Kiri; Sukey, Kiri's hero.

It could be a scam. It could be a trap. But Kiri goes anyways, because maybe the drunk knows what happened to Sukey. Maybe he has some of Sukey's paintings, the ones she promised to give to Kiri. So Kiri goes, and she comes home with a bag of Sukey's things. She also comes home with new friendships (Doug the drunk, Snoogie the crippled cat, and Skunk the tattooed bicycle repair boy), knowledge of how Sukey really died, and an entirely altered outlook on life.

And that's when the story really jumps the rails to frolic in the meadow.

There are two very important sides to Wild Awake, two aspects that kept me balanced between delight and horror. The first aspect is the writing. If you enjoy gorgeous imagery, imaginative metaphors, and lilac prose (not so purple as to be nauseatingly purple prose, but not, say, taupe prose either), then you'll adore Wild Awake. Though I tend to remember funny lines and scenes, I found myself taking notes on the more lyrical passages in this book.

Even when parts in the first half of the book left me with raised eyebrows (drugs in the first freaking paragraph? really?), I kept reading for the sake of the words. Ms. Smith can string together a dazzling image like nobody's business, and I kept reading far past when I would have set down most books. Technically, not a lot happens in Wild Awake, at least not the sort of happenings I'm used to. Externally, there's not a lot going on. Kiri learns about her sister's life and death, she learns about herself, she falls in love. It's all internal growth things, which doesn't always make for a compelling read. In fact, there's so much sumptuous wordplay and so little to mark in way of events that I didn't recognize the second aspect until I was in the middle of it.

Holy cow, Kiri is messed up. In this book, Kiri moves from perfectly responsible if somewhat repressed to a manic pixie dream girl type to so far down the rabbit hole that I was genuinely concerned. I don't know how this story was supposed to read, and I don't know how others read it. (I try to avoid other reviews until after I've written my own.) I just know that while Wild Awake was pretty and full of the wonder of kisses and painting and music and midnight bike rides, it also displays a life that is very, very unhealthy. It's one thing to bask in a delightfully positioned metaphor about towels in a washing machine looking like bedraggled beavers. It's another to stop and worry that this is what the protagonist actually sees when she looks at those towels.

In the abstract, Kiri appears to be the hippie dream girl. She sheds the overbearing expectations of her straight-laced parents and stick-in-the-mud drummer boyfriend and forges her own path with the help of a tattooed, Tao-quoting, radio-collecting zen boy. She does marijuana and drinks and plays piano and lives, because we all should live free like the birds and gambol among the stars, etc. etc. etc. It's pretty. It's magical. But it's also very dysfunctional. Finding Kiri's new life waiting for me amid all the lovely words and images was like draining a glass of cool, refreshing pink lemonade to find a dead roach at the bottom of my cup.

And maybe that was the point. Maybe we were supposed to see how unhealthy certain things can be when taken too far, but I never really felt that. Kiri is the narrator. She's unreliable, but we're only allowed to see things through her eyes. So when friends and family worry, they're dismissed as narrow-minded, unenlightened, etc.  They're seen as mean and unkind. And by the end, I don't know if Kiri gets help. I don't know if we're supposed to want her to get help, though I do. I'm not the author. I don't know the intent behind this awakening-of-a-flower-child story. I don't feel comfortable ascribing motivation to a person I've never met.

I do know that I'm concerned. I do know that I'm still very puzzled. I do know that Wild Awake was not my cup of tea at all. However, I also know that should Ms. Smith venture to write a more... shall we say, grounded tale with more plot and less woah, I will certainly check it out. Anyone who nicknames her love interest "brontosaurus of love" and "love-bison" earns my attention.

Favorite (Non-Spoilery) Quote(s):
I can't help it. I am an Eyebrow Person from a tribe of Eyebrow People; I raise my eyebrows.
Every time Skunk moves, I catch that scent again, peeling paint and citrus. He smells like an old ladder left out in the sun.
Points Added For: Gorgeous writing, the phrase "brontosaurus of love."

Points Subtracted For: Not making much of anything happen, a character that goes completely off the rails with no clear sign that she ever gets back on them, making me feel queasy.

Good For Fans Of: Wildly inventive imagery, manic pixie dream girls, literary contemporaries, a focus on character instead of plot.

Notes For Parents: Language, making out, sex, underage drinking, drug use, possible romanticization/glamorization of mental illness/drug use/drinking.

Note: I received a digital ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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