Rating: 3 stars
I received this ARC from Orca Book via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of this book in any way. All quotes are taken from the uncorrected proof and are subject to change.
Suicide, depression, death of a friend, war, rape, animal abuse, human trafficking, genocide (only one of these was mentioned in the book’s content warning. I bet you can’t guess which one it was)
“Maybe that’s how mothers love their monsters: they remember them when they were innocent.”
Valentine’s boyfriend is dead and she’s having a difficult time moving on. She’s been in bed for months, avoiding friends and family, lost in her own grief. When she overdoses on sleeping pills, her mother decides to take her on a soul-searching journey to Thailand. But things don’t go according to plan, and when her trek group stumbles upon something horrible, she’s forced to take refuge in the unforgiving jungle with Lin, a mysterious guide, and a baby elephant who needs her help.
I have to admit: I’m disappointed. This could have been great—and almost was!—but it had so many issues that I can’t say I recommend it.
I’m a little baffled that so many reviews mention the writing as a particularly wonderful feature. I’m the kind of person who has a hard time reading at all if the writing isn’t great (or conversely, truly awful because I enjoy hilariously terrible media), and I had an extremely difficult time trying to read this. It perpetuated my slump (which is why I’m reviewing it now and not like 3 weeks ago when it came out oops). I really had to force myself to finish this.
It wasn’t that the writing was really bad; it was actually mostly fine, but the sheer lack of descriptions really ruined it for me. Talk about white room syndrome! The author attempted to be descriptive, she really did: she had a lot of set up for scenes, including the landscape and all that. But then it’s almost as if she forgot about them because they’re never mentioned again throughout the scene. And characters don’t move. As far as I’m told, they’re standing plank still, barking at each other in robotic, inflectionless speeches. Dialogue isn’t just about what characters say: it’s about what they do. And they never did anything unless it was a wildly important motion. So I had such a hard time imagining or picturing anything at all.
And then there’s the pacing. Oh dear. I’ll go into it more later, but basically, this doesn’t seem to know that you can introduce information earlier if you want a more emotionally resonant experience. Explaining almost everything after the fact prevents any kind of tension, which, for what is largely a thriller, is kinda the whole point. What was (I guess) supposed to be the climax lacked build up, so when it happened and the book was quickly coming to an end, it felt unresolved. I expected something to actually happen at any moment because surely, that couldn’t have been the whole story?
Because of the disconnect between what’s actually written and what I’m supposed to be perceiving, almost every single emotional beat just went right over me. The only thing that sort of got me was at the very beginning when Valentine’s describing her depression because, girl, same. I get that, deeply. But when Lin is discussing his obviously more traumatic experiences, I felt nothing. The writing didn’t express the emotions necessary. It didn’t drive home the horror of his reality. For a book so obsessed with poetry, it really lacked poetic resonance.
Now, let’s get to the more… controversial topics. This book is set, obviously, in Thailand, and focuses heavily on the conflict between the Burmese army and the Karen and Rohingya refugees. And also on child soldiers. And on the abuse of elephants and the tourist market. And on rape and murder. And on depression and suicide and loss and self harm. And on mother and daughter relationships, and occasionally alcoholic fathers. And on romantic relationships (and age gaps).
And, oh, it’s only like 270 pages.
It tries to tackle too much. A lot of these topics do connect—quite well on occasion—but because of the shorter length, it doesn’t give certain things enough time to feel well developed, or even developed at all in some cases.
Lin is the most confusing character in this book, because so much time is spent on him, but in retrospect, no time was spent at all. I don’t understand him at all. In fact, he weirds me out, and not because of his ~mysterious past~ It’s because he’s freaking old and that’s freaking creepy, but only discussed for like 2 seconds. This book managed to take my absolute favorite oddly specific trope (two people who aren’t in a relationship forced to sleep next to each other on a forest floor) and made me question it and dislike it and feel overall gross and confused.
Besides that, the comparison between Valentine’s own grief—however legitimate—and the actual genocide, torture, and enslavement of Burmese, Karen, and Rohingya people (among others) makes me kinda ill tbh. If it had been done better, with perhaps a better protagonist (maybe Lin? idk), it wouldn’t feel so icky. Honestly, this kinda reminded me a little of the controversy over A Place for Wolves by Kosoko Jackson, only significantly less awful. The fact that the main lesson here is ~other people’s lives suck more than yours so suck it up~ and/or, based on interpretation, ~your first world life sucks just as much as a child soldier in Myanmar~ is kinda dreadful. That’s some “kids are starving in Africa so eat your vegetables” logic. That wasn’t entirely the point of the story, but it was the message that came across the most to me. I just feel that if there had been much more exploration and time spent on actual issues instead of highlighting them and moving on, this would have been a very evocative story about suffering, loss, and what you do in order to survive, what the human and animal spirit is capable of. But it wasn’t about that, not really. It was about Valentine learning to move passed her boyfriend’s death.
And what was up with Lish and her mom? And why does Lish have the audacity to question Valentine’s name when she goes by “Lish”? Like wtf?
To conclude this rather rambly review, I feel that this book was largely okay, however much of a disappointment it was. Perhaps if I hadn’t read We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch about the Rwandan genocide of the mid-90s, I might have liked it infinitely better. If I hadn’t learned the visceral, horrifying causes and effects of genocide and countries under turmoil. If I could ignore reality long enough to appreciate fiction. Then maybe it would have effected me. But it didn’t. I wish this author the best and support her in her effort to touch on difficult topics, but she maybe should have waited a bit and honed her craft better before releasing this into the world.
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