Wednesday, December 11, 2013

YA Guy Reviews... WHERE THE MOON ISN'T by Nathan Filer

YA Guy's got to be completely honest: I'm not sure Nathan Filer's debut Where the Moon Isn't (first published in England as The Shock of the Fall) actually counts as YA.

But it should. It's got a teen protagonist, a host of teen issues--parents, friends, siblings, school--and a perfectly captured teen voice: angry, apologetic, hopeful, despairing, sarcastic, shy, confident, confused.

I'm reluctant to classify it as YA only because it has such a literary feel to it, not only in terms of the quality of its language but in terms of its mind-bending structure. Narrated by a young man who's been hospitalized after suffering a schizophrenic break, it might be somewhat off-putting to a YA audience.

But then again, it might not be. It might be that it's time for YA/adult hybrids or crossovers that don't include characters named Katniss Everdeen.

I really loved Where the Moon Isn't. The story is poignant: narrator Matthew tries to pull his life together years after the death of his older brother Simon, whose presence or absence plays a key role in his delusions. The characters are well-rendered (with the possible exception of Matthew's mother, about whom I'll say more later). And the writing is absolutely lovely, in the loopy, intense, not-quite-lucid discourse of a man struggling with mental illness:

I have an illness, a disease with the shape and sound of a snake. Whenever I learn something new, it learns it too.

If you have HIV or Cancer, or Athlete's Foot, you can't teach them anything. When Ashley Stone was dying of Meningitis, he might have known that he was dying, but his Meningitis didn't know. Meningitis doesn't know anything. But my illness knows everything that I know. This was a difficult thing to get my head around, but the moment I understood it, my illness understood it too.

Through the character of Matthew, Filer does an excellent job of letting us into the mind of a person who "no longer owned [his] words, but [was] possessed by them." Recently, I read a post calling for more realistic representations of mental illness in YA, and I think Filer's novel provides just that.

If I have one reservation about the novel, it's in Filer's representation of the mother, an odd, somewhat caricatured portrait of the hot-and-cold caregiver 50s-era psychiatrists referred to as the "schizophrenogenic mother." Nowhere does Filer (or Matthew) directly blame the mother for his condition, but the suggestion is that, at best, she didn't help. Given the novel's otherwise realistic and sympathetic depiction of mental illness, I was somewhat disappointed by the appearance of this hoary cliche.

But in all other respects, I was impressed by Filer's portrayal of a character trying desperately to rebuild the fractured world around him, the fractured world within.

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