Calling You Were Here by Cori McCarthy (Sourcebooks Fire, March 2016) a book about grief makes it sound depressing; although a primary concern of the book is the death five years ago of Jake, a risk-taking prankster, You Were Here fizzes with whiplash-quick dialogue and convincing relationships between those left behind.
Jake’s death, the result of a stupid and avoidable accident, haunts the main characters of McCarthy’s book; his younger sister Jaycee, ostensibly the novel’s main protagonist, attempts to recreate his stunts in order to remain close to his memory, while Natalie, Jaycee’s childhood best friend, has thrown herself into academic success in order to numb the pain of Jake’s death. Joining them in a mission to retrace Jake’s footsteps are Natalie’s hapless boyfriend Zach, heartbroken Bishop and silent, mysterious Mik. The characters grab and retain the reader’s interest; each has a convincing and clearly different voice, allowing you to form attachments to each of them.
Reading YA sometimes makes me feel old, as I have mentioned before in writing reviews; it is not unheard of for me to lose patience with a “troubled” character, not because I don’t sympathise with them, but because when you are 32 like I am, some of their problems seem insignificant. McCarthy’s characters, however, are all compelling, with fears and issues that resonate with a reader of any age. The different ways in which grief manifests itself, for example, is something which is relevant to all the characters, and McCarthy does an excellent job of making the reader care about all of them finding resolution.
If there was anything I didn’t like about You Were Here, I suppose it would be the unsavoury subplot involving Zach’s particularly nasty brother, whose incursions into the story I could have done without. Perhaps fewer references to how beautiful Jaycee is too; how she looked didn’t make any difference to how I responded to the character, and it didn’t seem integral to the plot. These are picky things though; there’s more than enough to enjoy and be drawn into here without being bothered by these details.
You Were Here is fast-paced, with plenty of action, and the chapters are short, allowing the story to zip along satisfyingly quickly. I liked the different ways in which McCarthy gives voice to the characters; the sections from Mik’s perspective, for example, surprised and engaged me, as well as breaking up the narrative. I also liked the development of a squad throughout the book, with angry, solitary Jaycee being joined and supported by the friends she has grown apart from. Jaycee is a brittle and difficult, and convincingly rebellious character, and I think it’s a brave decision to cast her front and centre in the novel, as well as one which allows her gradual recovery from Jake’s death to become clear. From the synopsis, I assumed this would be one of those YA novels which wants to make you sob into a pillow, but I don’t think that’s the intention here, which is far more impressive; You Were Here engages you with complex characters and relationships, as well as emotional reveals, rather than poking you until you cry. It’s a book with force and power, as well as dark humour, and I recommend it.