March 20, 2014
(+++) EXOTIC SETTINGS
Never Ending. By Martyn Bedford. Wendy Lamb Books. $16.99.
The Mirk and Midnight Hour. By Jane Nickerson. Knopf. $16.99.
Kissing in Italian. By Lauren Henderson. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
The setting sometimes matters more than the characters in novels for teenagers, sometimes reflecting protagonists’ moods, sometimes running counter to them, sometimes becoming a participant of sorts in the progress of the book. Martyn Bedford’s Never Ending is set primarily in an institution called the Korsakoff Clinic, where nontraditional psychological therapy is used to try to help teens, including protagonist Shiv, confront and move past severe traumas. In Shiv’s case, the trauma involves the death of her brother and best friend, Declan, during the family’s vacation in Greece – the other important place where the book takes place. Cast as a narrative that at once moves forward through Shiv’s attempt to come to terms with Declan’s death (which involves, among other things, her interactions with fellow clinic residents Mikey and Caron), and backward through flashbacks to what happened in Greece (including a romance between Shiv and a boy named Nikos), Bedford’s book often makes the settings livelier than the characters. Shiv (her real name is Siobhan, but she notes that it is Irish even though she is not) goes through such “key therapeutic activities” as “Walk,” “Make,” “Talk,” “Write” and “Buddy Time.” Asked why she is at the Korsakoff Clinic, Shiv dutifully replies, “To stop doing the stuff I do,” but Dr. Pollard, director of the clinic, insists that no matter what “your mother and father, your social worker, the police, the juvenile court, your counselor, [and] the people whose property you’ve vandalized” want, the issue is what Shiv herself wants during the 60 days of treatment. Shiv herself has to discover, gradually, just what that is. “Each day is tougher than the last” as she confronts her feelings and desires – her reasons for the behavior that put her at Korsakoff Clinic in the first place. She finds herself “trapped inside – enveloped by, taken back to – the place where her brother lived his last days,” courtesy of virtual reality. She burrows down into herself, seeking ways to assuage the guilt she feels at Declan’s death and what she sees as her responsibility for it. Readers eventually find out just what did happen to Declan, after a lot of pseudo-psychological comments such as the doctor’s assertion that Shiv has “a misfiring in the brain that causes you to confuse imagined perceptions with actual ones, whether it’s a remembered event or something happening – or seeming to happen – right now, in front of you.” The specially designed Personalized Therapy Unit (PTU) becomes a presence in the book, as does the rest of Korsakoff Clinic, as does Kyritos, Greece, where the family vacationed and Declan died; but the main presence here is intended to be in Shiv’s head, within which she eventually finds out how to cope with what occurred and her role in it. Whether the coming-to-terms outcome of the book will satisfy readers will depend on the extent to which they accept being a part of Shiv and of the settings in which the story plays out.
The story of The Mirk and Midnight Hour plays out in the United States’ past, during the Civil War, and the depth of involvement of readers in the setting here is absolutely crucial to enjoyment of Jane Nickerson’s story. Violet Dancey has already lost her twin brother to the war, and is now at home in Mississippi with her stepsister and laudanum-addicted mother. Her father is fighting. Violet endures the privations of war and the depredations of those affected by it – an extended scene in which “bummers,” bushwhackers who are out to steal what they can and ruin what they cannot carry, eventually are talked out of murder by Violet’s offering them a home-cooked meal, is particularly effective, and more believable than a brief description of the events makes it sound. There is also a sprinkling of period language here – rare in historical fiction for young readers, and quite welcome – such as an old woman’s comment that when a doctor came to check on her, “He come with that young buck slinking in behind – the one so skinny there’d have to be two of him to cast a shadow,” and a young girl’s comment about her pet raccoon, “I been seeking a good place to leave Coon Baby. I tended him ’cause some critter ate his ma, but Memaw says ’tis time he be going to stay with his own kin.” As important as the scene-setting is, it is largely introductory to the main story, which takes some time getting going and involves Violet’s discovery of a severely injured Union soldier to whom Violet is attracted. This is no straightforward Romeo-and-Juliet story, though, because it turns out that the soldier, Thomas, is being cared for by someone who seems to have dark reasons rather than compassion as a motivation. Violet must juggle the exigencies of war and her concern for family and for Thomas against peculiar revelations, many centering on a cult called the Children of Raphtah. Mysticism and otherworldly events end up merging with the careful descriptions of 19th-century reality to produce a climax that readers will find emotionally compelling if not particularly believable. The highly sentimental ending is a bit much to take, but readers who have become involved in Violet’s world will find it satisfyingly affirmative in a “life goes on” manner.
Despite featuring a protagonist with the same name, Violet, Lauren Hendrson’s Kissing in Italian is a book in which matters are a great deal lighter. This is a companion to Flirting in Italian, which it really helps to have read before tackling this book, although doing so is not 100% necessary. Essentially a light romance that uses exotic locales to dress itself up more attractively, Kissing in Italian continues the story of the earlier book, which focused on Violet Routledge’s romance with Luca di Vesperi during her summer study program in Italy. Actually, Henderson’s intent here is to make the book somewhat deeper than its predecessor: Violet and Luca find things out about their families that force the two of them apart, and may mean they can never be a real couple – and Violet discovers that, in these difficult circumstances, she not only needs Luca more than ever but also needs to bond with the new girlfriends she has made in Italy. The premise here is far-fetched and the “strains on the relationship” theme is rather, well, strained; but then, Henderson never tries to raise this book above the “young love” genre, filling it with sentences such as, “I can feel my body melting just at the thought of Luca, and it’s much more dangerous to give in to these feelings in the warm, dark, romantic Italian night.” And when things, inevitably, go bad for some of Violet’s friends, Henderson offers this sort of cliché: “Poor Kendra’s making awful, stifled, whimpering sounds, like a puppy that’s been kicked.” It is extremely hard to take any of this seriously, especially the “potentially earthshaking revelations” elements. Amusingly, the characters spend one page creating the entire story of an imaginary romance novel, tossing out plot points sentence by sentence, from opening meeting to massive complications to eventual happy ending, and the book sounds just like something Henderson might actually write. The awful, breakup-causing revelation here turns out, after some twists and turns, not to be what it first seemed to be, after all; so everything ends happily (and rather sappily). There is even the hint of yet another book to come about Violet and Luca – which, if it happens, will likely be as frothy and location-dependent as are Flirting in Italian and Kissing in Italian.