Sometimes I wonder if I should read so much YA. Yes, it is undoubtedly helpful for someone who teaches teenagers to read books aimed at them; it helps me to relate to my students and talk to them, as well as to make recommendations when their parents desperately ask “what can we do to make him/her read?” Also, a large number of these books are supremely good. On the other hand, some of them are massively overwrought, emotionally manipulative and derivative. Additionally, I am 32 so perhaps I should be catching up on Dickens or Kate Atkinson or reading a recipe book or something.
But then along comes Jandy Nelson’s ‘I’ll Give You the Sun,’ a two-hander with narrative duties shared between twins Noah and Jude. So far, so ‘All the Bright Places’ (which, apparently, is now my reference point for everything). Where ‘I’ll Give You the Sun’ is different is in the complexity of its structure; Noah’s chapters, titled ‘The Invisible Museum,’ take place while the twins are thirteen, while Jude picks up the story three years later in sections entitled ‘The History of Luck.’ The gap between the two is, often, what really matters; Nelson, admirably, doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out and this subtle approach is what sets her novel apart.
The first thing that strikes you about this novel is the style; Noah, kicking off the story, narrates like nobody has ever narrated, with his artistic impulses echoed in his storytelling style, like here:
“All six-thousand hippopotamus pounds of Fry dive for my ankles. Sorry, this is not happening. It just isn’t. I hate the water, prone as I am to drowning and drifting to Asia. I need my skull in one piece. Crushing it would be like taking a wrecking ball to some secret museum before anyone got the chance to see what’s inside it.”
Sixteen year old Jude possesses far more snark but, at the same time, vulnerability; her half of the story is infused with the tragedy that has occurred in the gap between the two narratives. At the outset, I didn’t like Jude; I spent her first few chapters wishing Noah’s voice would interrupt, but, gradually, Nelson made me really care about and empathise with Jude.
I previously blogged about depressing YA fiction and its excessively tragic plotlines. The thing with ‘I’ll Give You the Sun’ is that, yes, it’s sad, but, crucially, it’s convincing and affecting and, in places, uplifting. Both Noah and Jude are flawed characters and they know it. Nobody in this book is perfect, but their imperfections ring true; there is not a manic pixie girl or curiously erudite adolescent in sight here.
Art is central to the novel; Jude and Noah both use art as an outlet for what they can’t say to each other; their mother is an art critic and frustrated artist; photographers and sculptors play key roles too. The pages even look like a work of art, making it all the more easy to immerse yourself in the novel. Nelson’s descriptions of the paintings, sketches and sculptures illustrate the story without literally illustrating it; every time Noah mentioned one of his paintings, I felt like I could see it.
The over-riding feeling I have about this book is that it has a pulsing, beating heart and that heart is in exactly the right place. Nelson writes about issues without, I think, making this an issues-laden book. It is not in my nature to universally praise anything (the inevitable result of choosing Raphael as my favourite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle in childhood: sarcasm is my default setting), but I feel like to criticise ‘I’ll Give You the Sun’ would be like throwing things at an Amur leopard; it is too rare, too beautiful and too special to justify it, but, beneath all the grace and beauty, it has enough bite to defend itself.