Given my tendency to write long, winding novels that later have to be hacked back like overgrown rosebushes, I’ve come to really respect those writers who’ve mastered the art of trim fiction.
The Things She’s Seen, the work of brother/sister duo Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina, is a prime example. At just 193 pages–half of which are in verse, making them even less text-intensive–this young adult novel nevertheless tackles heavy themes with succinct, heart-pricking grace.
Set in small-town Australia, Things is told in two voices. 15-year-old Beth Teller, recently dead, has lingered as a ghost only her detective father can see. When he’s dispatched to investigate a suspicious death, she accompanies him, desperate to help him survive his grief. Isobel Catching, found wandering near the murder site, is the sole witness of the crime… but will only tell her story in poetic riddles.
Among the many praises that could be given to Things, “clever” is perhaps the most apt. This type of novel–with its magical realism elements and overlapping narratives–requires highly dextrous plotting and execution. And the Kwaymullinas pull it off beautifully. The story unfolds naturally, organically. And when the novel comes to its close, Isobel’s tale and the murder mystery collide in a sharply-focused, double-twist that will inspire an “Ah ha!” in readers.
Isobel’s story is told in blank verse that is disorienting, disturbing, and fantastical, thrusting the reader into a horrifying alternate dimension and leaving them to wonder: is this all a metaphor for a terrestrial experience? Or was Isobel actually trapped in this hellish “other-place?” Given the fact that Things‘ other narrator is a ghost, either option is possible. But for all the trippy disorientation of Isobel’s poetry, a look back after the novel’s conclusion proves her story perfectly cohesive. Within her otherworldly poetry is every clue needed to unlock the mystery. And its eerie atmosphere proves a poignant cypher for a deeper truth underlying the events–there is triumph beyond trauma.
In Beth’s sections, there unfolds a lean but moving portrait of grief: Beth’s grief over her truncated life. Her father’s grief for Beth. Beth’s grief for her father and the sorrow consuming him. But amidst the sadness, hope sprouts. The result is a compelling arc showing loss slowly shading toward restoration. As a monograph on grief and tragedy and endurance, Things is utterly successful.
These are but a few of the tough topics tackled. Abuse, colonialism, and historic injustice are also addressed. In many ways, Things is an ode to the strength of Aboriginal women–a strength tested and proved through an inheritance of suffering. The sprinkling through of these themes, particularly via the use of Aboriginal story-telling and myth, adds a thought-provoking texture to the tale.
Despite Things‘ many weighty themes, however, the novel reads as somewhat young, skewing toward the earlier side of YA. The language is simple and straight-forward. In Beth’s interactions with her father, there is little in the way of rebellion or struggling-to-find-her-identity that is so classically part of Young Adult literature. And when the mystery is fully unveiled, the reader is shielded from the brunt of it, with the grittier parts taking place “off camera.” It’s the kind of reveal that astute readers will be able to interpret, while allowing younger readers to understand “something” has gone wrong without throwing the full trauma in their faces.
Lean and sleek, eloquent and otherworldly, Things is a very specific sort of book. It doesn’t fit neatly into one genre, or even age bracket. But there’s something prepossessing about it, and provocative. It’s the type of book your mind drifts continually back to, long after the last page closes.
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*I received an Advanced Readers Copy of The Things She’s Seen for the purposes of this review.