See, being an eternal optimist, I can’t even bring myself to say the word ‘suicide’ in my blog post title – yet as a subject of teen novels, I’m seeing it and mental health related illness cropping up more and more…
I bring the issue up as I’ve just read Gayle Forman’s new novel I Was Here, (which I reviewed for Shiny New Books here).
To cut a long story short, on page one, you read the suicide note of Cody’s best friend Meg. They’d grown up together and only just gone separate ways when Meg went off to uni. Everyone is grief-stricken in their small town in the US northwest. Asked by Meg’s parents to collect her things from uni, Cody is shocked to find that there was so much she didn’t know about, and that Meg had been visiting the wrong kind of internet forums – essentially being anonymously groomed towards suicide. I was shocked to find that Forman’s novel was based on a real case! Importantly, Cody’s investigations lead to an appropriate ending, and she is able to move on.
I was here though, is just the latest (bound to be) bestselling YA novel covering this territory – there seems to be more and more of them at the moment. To see just how many there are – a good sample of titles and some intelligent discussion around the subject can be found on the Stacked blog here and here.
Of course, there have always been books which include suicides and attempted suicides, many of which will be read by older teens – The Bell Jar being the classic (see my review here), but many of the suicidal protagonists fail in their attempts to end their lives, recovering to some level and overcoming their depression. The gritty memoirs Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen and Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel sharing their experiences will be familiar to many too.
Moving to 2007 – Ned Vizzini wrote It’s Kind of a Funny Story about a suicidal high school student who gets over his depression (my review here); Vizzini himself tragically committed suicide in 2013. Plath of course committed suicide just months after finishing The Bell Jar. Knowing the authors’ fates makes for a doubly sad read. These two books both feature protagonists who overcame their depression to engage with life again.
The current crop, including I Was Here, often feature successful (that’s so the wrong word, but you know what I mean) suicides though. This does change the emphasis towards what happens next and the effects on their friends and familes, but the act of the suicide always hangs heavily over the whole stories.
Again this isn’t new, Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel was The Virgin Suicides about a family of teenaged sisters who all committed suicide, told after the events from the girls’ boyfriends PoVs; that wasn’t targeted at a YA audience although many older teens will read it. (I’ve yet to read it, but did see the film). Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is particularly well-written in its sensitivity and wonderful young hero Charlie – I highly recommend it.
Despite their sad themes, if you look around the blogosphere you’ll find many YA bloggers who are welcoming these books for giving their teenaged readers a way into discussing their own problems, and explaining to them what being depressed in particular is like – a kind of reading therapy perhaps. For them, it’s all about overcoming the old taboos and fostering a kinder, non-judgmental and more supportive atmosphere in which it’s good to talk. I applaud that wholeheartedly, because I see the pressure to achieve being put on teenagers today and I worry for them.
These days there are also hundreds of books for children and teens about grief, coming to terms with terminal illness, or the death of a parent or loved one. These range from Patrick Ness’ exceptional A Monster Calls about a boy whose mum is dying from cancer, to Sally Nicholl’s heartwarming but sad Ways to Live Forever about a boy with terminal illness, Clare Furniss’ bestselling novel Year of the Rat about a girl whose mum dies in childbirth, and not forgetting Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece which has to win the prize for most elegiac title. These novels, many of which are eminently suitable for older children and younger teens, are perhaps the natural precursor to those above, but, they are also totally different in that no-one wants to die in them…
So, I also worry because these latest suicide lit books are so real. Where is the escapism and mystery? I remember escaping into books as a teenager, never reading books that were so close to real life. Admittedly, the thrillers I read were terribly violent (Alastair MacLean and his ilk), but they were not ‘real’ – you engage with them differently. With the exception of The Bell Jar I can’t remember any similar titles around when I was a teenager, but then you didn’t talk about any mental health issues either.
Don’t get me wrong, I thought that all the novels I’ve mentioned and read above were good, they nearly all made me cry too, but so much teen fiction these days is so bleak and seems to want to shock. Given that many of the protagonists are on verge of becoming young adults, it’s such a brutal way to come of age too!
That’s why one of my favourite recent YA novels is Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone. No-one dies, there’s a mystery to be solved, and it still has lots to say about modern life and families. From those I’ve read so far on the longlist I’d be very happy if it won the Carnegie Medal. But, I also fear that to stick one’s head in the sand over this YA trend would be the mark of becoming a sentimental old fool – I’m not ready for that yet!