Tags: young adult, contemporary, grief, music, piano, mental illness
When a strange caller informs young pianist Kiri Byrd he has the remains of her dead sister’s stuff—a sister who had been dead for years—Kiri’s life turns upside down. Kiri struggles to piece together what she’s learning about her sister, but doing so sets her on a crash course towards a breakdown, and only by acknowledging it can Kiri hope to live with it, to make it a part of herself.
With the weight of the expectations I placed upon its spine after declaring its synopsis to be one of the best I’d ever encountered, Hilary T. Smith’s debut novel WILD AWAKE had a lot to live up to. Fortunately, it was more than up to the task. WILD AWAKE reminded me of the best type of our favorite and revered Aussie YA: it’s whimsical and more than a little odd, but ultimately grounded in the solid reality of common emotions.
WILD AWAKE has many strengths, one of which is its startling and beautiful prose. It startles you because Smith is, oftentimes, just noting in passing an everyday detail or thought—only she does so in a way that makes you pause and actually notice what you otherwise would not. The prose tinkles like water trickling over crystal. Its brightness combines with the darker undertones of Kiri’s situation for a full symphony of bass emotions and soprano wonder.
From the start, Kiri as protagonist stands out. She is many things, has many identities—a serious pianist, a quipper; a dutiful daughter, a monomaniac—but she owns them all unabashedly, deliberately. Unlike other, forgettable YA protagonists who claim to be artists or rebels or whatever, Kiri doesn’t say: she just is, and that makes her being genuine. She’s unafraid to plunge herself into making mistakes, with the result that she gets more out of life than those who hang back. The times when she descends into a whirlwind of monomania are thrilling yet terrifying to read, because you see why she does it, why she needs to let herself go like that, and yet despite how seemingly carefree she is in those moments, you know it’s barely masking a deep, deep hurt. I desperately wish Kiri was real, because I think that her fearlessness, whether or not it’s enviable or reckless, would make me a better person.
That being said, in the end, it’s difficult to say what this book is about. The synopsis emphasizes the mysterious circumstances of Kiri’s sister’s death, but besides for being the catalyst for what happens in the book, finding out more about Sukey and what happened to her becomes less and less of a priority as the book flows along, replaced by Kiri’s deterioriating mental state. Which is a fine direction for a story to go, but still, a little…disorienting.
Nevertheless, WILD AWAKE was a story that lived up to its promises. It is more than the sum of its parts, more than just delectable prose, sympathetic character, and endearing family mystery. Go in with no anticipation of conventions, and enjoy the wild-awake ride.
Cover discussion: LOVE the colors. Not the biggest fan of the double exposure that is reminiscent of photography projects produced by emo/hipster-wannabe college students.
Katherine Tegen Books / May 28, 2013 / Hardcover / 384pp. / $17.99
e-galley received for review from publisher and Edelweiss. Thank you!