Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Review: Split by Swati Avasthi

No matter how much young adult literature I read, it's still sometimes difficult to deal with the matter of expectations. I'm not of the mindset that you have to lower your expectations when reading children's literature. Actually, I often experience the opposite: I appreciate a well written adult book, but when a work of literature intended for a young audience really works, I find myself even more inspired by it than its possible adult counterparts.

Maybe it's because so many people underestimate the intelligence of young readers, underestimate their abilities to discern quality from what they read, that when a children's book holds such complexities and depth of story and character, I'm relieved that not only was the writer talented and creative enough of a storyteller to give a young audience something it really deserves, something it really needs, but that there was a publisher that saw the potential in the book, that there were other people behind the book, pushing it forward, paving the road to its eventual audience. I'm relieved that there are people out there that really give a damn about what children are reading and want to provide them with the very best that kids' lit can offer.

But expectations... they can still be trouble. Whereas my expectations as far as quality of writing hardly ever differ between literature intended for adults or literature intended for children, sometimes I have to accept that the way information is conveyed to an audience may depend on the age of the target demographic. When young adult books focus on a serious topic, there must be some acceptance of the fact that this will probably be handled in a way that is going to teach a lesson. It's just a matter of fact in YA lit. But serious topics are usually met with eventual preachiness or life-building, lesson learning coming-of-age.

There are sophisticated ways that this is done, of course. I recently had the joy of reading Sherman Alexie's excellent, National Book Award - winning YA book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and I was really impressed by how well Alexie works in the life lessons learned by Arnold Spirit. The way the book weaves flooring moments of crushing reality with exuberant bursts of friendship, love, hope, and humor, so much humor, often all of it within pages of another, and yet, nothing feels disconnected or haltingly incongruous. And yes, the main character learns life lessons. A lot of them, actually. But the novel doesn't seem to screech to halt every time Arnold has an epiphany of one kind or another.

Split by Swati Avasthi is not quite as skillfully handled. The story of two brothers, reconnecting after years of separation due to the physical and emotional abuse inflicted upon them by their father, never goes into full on After-School Special mode, but it also falls flat on its mild attempts at wryness or humor. Jace, the younger brother, is kicked out of his house after physically challenging his father, and he gets into his car and drives thousands of miles to his brother's apartment in Albuquerque. He's carrying with him almost nothing except the address to his brother's place, the little bit of money his mother could sneak him, and the revolving wheel of tormenting memories, recollections of his father's abuse on him, his mother, his older brother, and Jace's subsequent destructive relationship with his high school girlfriend, Lauren.

Jace's older brother hesitantly welcomes him, and from then on, it's the slow-moving transformation between an almost-man, desperately trying to ignore what he ran away from, and his teenage brother who can't shake lose what he only just left behind.

To the credit of the author: So many YA books about abuse border on exploitive. It's something I deplore so much about these books that purport to be doing something cautionary, even important, but are simultaneously reveling in the "how bad it can be" scenario. Split never gets overly graphic or needlessly specific. It doesn't overwhelm with the dirty details. Avasthi allows the small details to compensate in the large spans where there are no major revelations, and this allows the reader to process the information gradually, in the same way Jace reluctantly allows himself to remember or dwell on the memories of his life back in Chicago. His brother is even slower to admit to certain details, but as the siblings go beyond living civilly together, they allow themselves to divulge long-hidden details of the abuse and subsequent escapes.

Avasthi also does well in examining how a family's tradition of abuse can lead to long-term problems with physical violence and aggression in the children of the abusers. Jace is running from this violence, but it lives within him, and the prospect of him becoming his father is even more terrifying than the original monster himself.

What drags the novel down are stretches of stiff dialogue. The awkward tension between Jace and his brother is understandable, expected, and natural in its restrictiveness... but it makes for some fairly dull passages. The problem recurs in almost every conversation in the book, whether it's between Jace and his brother, Jace and his brother's girlfriend, social worker/teacher/den mother Miriam, or Jace and his would-be love interest, Dakota. Whether he's talking through his problems, actively avoiding talking about his problems, or even flirting with a girl he likes, Avasthi never really gives Jace a credible voice. For how interesting his inner thought process can be, Jace, personality-wise, is a bit flat. He's good at soccer. He's naturally charming with girls. He's intelligent, seemingly, likes to take photos... He's a lot of details with a big backstory, something overbearingly awful to overcome. As much as find out about the character, he never quite comes alive.

Because these characters never quite go beyond the archetypes they're inhabiting - victim, survivor, caretaker, motivating beautiful girl -any emotional catharsis is reached in a series of almost maddeningly stiff dialogue. It seems to be Avasthi's limitation as a storyteller and not necessarily the limitations of the story chosen to tell - there is a wealth of interest in Split, but it's mishandled in a series of slight ways, all of which add up to an imperfect, but readable, piece of debut YA fiction.

1 comment:

J.T. Oldfield said...

I totally get what you mean about some YA books conveying info in better ways than others. In fact, the reason that I don't read a lot of YA is probably because I always feel so talked down to--like the author has to hold my hand the whole time. And I bet a lot of kids feel the same.