From Neil Smith, author of the award-winning, internationally acclaimed story collection Bang Crunch, comes a dark but whimsical debut novel about starting over in the afterlife in the vein of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.
When Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple wakes up in heaven, the eighth-grade science geek thinks he died of a heart defect at his school. But soon after arriving in this hereafter reserved for dead thirteen-year-olds, Boo discovers he’s a ‘gommer’, a kid who was murdered. What’s more, his killer may also be in heaven. With help from the volatile Johnny, a classmate killed at the same school, Boo sets out to track down the mysterious Gunboy who cut short both their lives.
In a heartrending story written to his beloved parents, the odd but endearing Boo relates his astonishing heavenly adventures as he tests the limits of friendship, learns about forgiveness and, finally, makes peace with the boy he once was and the boy he can now be. – Goodreads
I didn’t know much about this book going in, but I’d seen it all over the bookish interwebs and my interest was piqued.
This is the story of Boo (real name Oliver), who dies suddenly (not a spoiler, it happens in the first chapter) and finds himself in an odd place that turns out to be “heaven” for American 13-year-olds. Soon another boy he knew at school, Johnny, shows up, and the two of them try to piece together what happened to them.
First things first, about this whole heaven place. It only contains 13-year-olds (American ones, at that). So you can’t see the grandparents who passed away before you were born or a parent who might have met with an accident – you can’t even play with your childhood dog. Not only that, but there are lots of things heaven doesn’t get – junk food, non-fiction books, pets or cars. And the kids stay how they were when they died – not the best they ever were, but whatever their physical condition was when they passed away. So if they were in a coma for a month and had their head shaved due to a bullet wound (like Boo’s friend Johnny), that’s how they’re stuck. Even if they were athletic pre-coma. What kind of heaven is that? I’d want mine with endless cheesecake that never made me fat and perfect hair without having to do anything to it.
They’re stuck in this “heaven” for 50 years. But they never get to change or grow up, they’re stuck just as they were in life. Imagine being a 60-year-old in a 13-year-old’s body? No thank you.
Plus, even though from the beginning of the book there’s nothing to indicate time period, it turns out part way through that it’s the 1970s. Inexplicably. I don’t know why it’s set in the ’70s – it could just as easily have been today. It wasn’t necessary to the story and didn’t feel like much was really done with the time period. So that threw me off a little – I kept having to consciously remind myself that this wasn’t current-day.
Despite some issues with the setting and time period, the characters were irresistible. Boo is such an interesting kid – smart, but with a winning side of social awkwardness and vulnerability. He’s spent his childhood being picked on, of course, given that he doesn’t look or act like a “normal” kid. You can’t help but become attached to him, and his friendship with Johnny makes you believe that kids can be decent and kind after all. Plus there are some great kids they meet in heaven – Thelma, the first person Boo sees when he wakes up, loud-mouthed Esther, and Peter Peter who runs the town museum of curious objects (things that normally aren’t allowed in heaven, but that somehow showed up anyway).
As I was reading this book, I kept thinking of The Maze Runner – the enclosed space full of only kids with no way out – even the new expressions they’ve evolved for use specifically in heaven. Of course, this wasn’t as silly and irritating as I found the new language in The Maze Runner (I had a lot of issues with that book), but still, the fact that it kept popping into my head even though I tried to keep it out did somewhat dampen my enjoyment.
I only finished this book yesterday, and I’m sure that in time I’ll settle into a firmer opinion of it, but for right now I must admit to having a hard time deciding what I think. I absolutely loved Boo, and I cared about his friends. Likewise I wanted to know what had actually happened to him and Johnny – the mystery of their deaths being central to the story. But I also found that there were times when the story dragged for me, and the setting fell a bit flat. I wanted just a little bit more out of the experience. In the end I would still recommend it, because it tackles some difficult and important topics, and offers characters worth getting to know, but it wasn’t quite the 10/10 I was hoping for.
Some quotes from the book:
“‘What about you boys?’ Esther says. ‘Feel any different than down in America?’
‘I feel a bit more social,’ I say, ‘but I fear it comes at the cost of a lower intelligence quotient.’
‘Well, is it better to be dumber with friends or smarter without?’ Esther asks.” – p. 74
“As time passes in heaven, the stars do not change places, not till the day when Zig [God] changes the complete backdrop. I tell my students this is a metaphor for life: we go along thinking nothing will be different, till the day everything suddenly changes at once.” – p. 268
Author: Neil Smith
Published By: Knopf Canada
Released: May 12, 2015
Genre: Fiction, Young Adult, Paranormal
Date Read: May 5-11, 2015
Rating: 7/10 (except this might change later, this one flumoxed me)