October Book Review: All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Theodore Finch is fascinated by death. Every day he thinks of ways he might die, but every day he also searches for—and manages to find—something to keep him here, and alive, and awake. Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her small Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s death. When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school—six stories above the ground—it’s unclear who saves whom. And when the unlikely pair teams up on a class project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, they go, as Finch says, where the road takes them: the grand, the small, the bizarre, the beautiful, the ugly, the surprising—just like life. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.’

This book has a really attractive tone; one that mocks and undermines the kind of high school stereotypes and behaviours which are now so out-of-date in twenty-first century literature. Up until recently, YA has been a fairly predictable genre, capturing what it means to be a teenager navigating that rocky road to adulthood through catty females characters, hunky boys and clear-cut cliques. I hoped this wouldn’t turn out to be another YA novel that used those same predictable and outdated tropes and, thankfully, it isn’t. Even though Amanda is the bitchy Queen-B character we’ve all come to expect from teenage narratives, Niven gives us a look behind that polished façade to reveal a young girl struggling with bulimia who picks on others to remind herself that she has a voice, and that what she says matters. It was so refreshing to read about a real character with real issues and struggles instead of the perfect cheerleader who is always on point. It’s too easy to just create a bitchy female character to create conflict, but instead Niven writes more realistic characters with real issues and troubled lives.
When Violet walks into the classroom and drops her books, we expect everyone to laugh at her – and they do – but we also get this little inner commentary from Finch, condemning predictable high school behaviour: ‘[t]his is followed by laughter because we’re in high school, which means we’re predictable and almost anything is funny, especially if it’s someone else’s public humiliation’. I love that those typical high school reactions are met with derision because, let’s face it, they’re getting old. While the opinion is vocalised through Finch’s narrative voice, I suspect Niven’s own voice is coming through a little here too.
I appreciate the sense of female solidarity that seems to only gain momentum as the narrative develops. Cliques don’t exactly dissolve, but characters with absolutely nothing in common and who don’t even really interact at school end up socialising outside of it. After Finch is gone, Violet gets together with all the girls to get them involved in the creation of Germ Magazine. This is girls supporting girls and it’s fantastic to see it reflected in literature at a time when feminism and the conversation surrounding female empowerment is on the rise. It’s certainly reflected in popular culture at the moment – take Riverdale, a relatively new TV show that is now in its second season on Netflix. Among many things, it champions female friendships and solidarity, most notably when many of the characters come together to speak out against ‘slut shaming’. That’s something I see explored in Niven’s novel, and it makes me feel hopeful that we’ll start seeing more of it cropping up in YA literature.
Mental health is the theme that is really at the heart of this novel, though. Violet, suffering from survivor’s guilt, depression, and bereavement, struggles to cope with these feelings that overwhelm her and a past that haunts her every day. Finch, neglected by his father for a new family and suffering from bipolar disorder struggles every day to find something to want to stay alive for. One of the most important things I will take away from Finch’s storyline is his hatred of labels. Despite his mental instability, he refuses to put a name to what he’s going through because he knows that will essentially become what everyone sees him for. He wishes his condition could be physical so that they can be easily explained away like the flu and I found this truly heart-breaking. Niven does a really great job here of highlighting the way society projects its fears onto the struggling individual – making them feel self-conscious because of the whole ‘you don’t look ill’ judgement a lot of non-sufferers jump to. As someone who is entirely unfamiliar with bipolar disorder, I found this novel incredibly eye-opening. Finch is such an intriguing character, and he’s most memorable for his mischievous personality because that’s the part of him that was revealed to me, as the reader, from the beginning – something which is no doubt deliberate. If Niven had told the reader from the beginning that Finch suffered from bipolar, I have a feeling that the things we associate with him as a character would be very different, and it speaks volumes about the way we associate people with their medical labels.
As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that while Finch is burning so brightly for Violet’s sake, (which is a wonderful thing in itself) he can’t keep it up forever. I hoped as Violet hoped, but the ending is tragic and expected. At first, I didn’t know what Finch’s erratic behaviour and unpredictable moods meant, but when bipolar was hinted at, I began to understand. Not only did I find this story moving, I also found it very educational. Not only did I learn more about bipolar, I also came to understand Finch’s desire to evade being labelled. It’s sad and illuminating and is most certainly a story which needed to be told. It’s a story of people broken by society and by circumstance who don’t quite know how to fix themselves. Normally, I don’t really mention the author’s acknowledgements, but Niven’s are as touching as the story itself. Provided at the back of the book is a wealth of helplines and websites, contact details for organisations that can help with mental health issues and offer advice and a kind ear. This is a cathartic piece of literature, not only for the readers, but for the author too, it turns out.
One thing Niven does really well is to capture that unforgettable feeling of falling for someone right away from merely a smile or a look. That infectious newness of a budding romance and the anticipation for every new encounter. Violet and Finch’s story is an unmistakably attractive one, which only makes the ending all the more heart-breaking. But it’s undeniable that the thing which really makes this book relevant and timely, is its focus on mental health. The discourse surrounding mental health is on the rise and literature is a key part of pushing for that conversation to be heard, and what Niven does so beautifully is to entertain and educate us about the world we live in (which is what every great author does) in a way that is memorable and unforgettable all at once.
I could read this book a million times and still fall in love with it again. I cannot recommend this book highly enough and am so glad I stumbled across it on the shelf of my local supermarket.
November Book Review: My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella

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