Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Whisper (Aaron Starmer)

Last year, I raved about The Riverman, the first in a trilogy by Aaron Starmer. Now it's publication day for book two, The Whisper, and I couldn't be more thrilled for everyone (and jealous I can't read it for the first time again).

When we left off book one, Fiona had disappeared into Aquavania, perhaps forever. Alistair realized that Charlie is the Riverman, accidentally shoots Kyle, and then uses the portal in Fiona's basement to chase after her. What he discovers there is a world of ash, with a sparkling rainbow river in it. Left without a choice, he jumps in the river and rides it to another child's realm. There he discovers another "swimmer," a kid who has entered Aquavania through someone else's portal, and, not sure what else to do, follows her lead. So begins book two.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this book is how different it feels from its predecessor, and I mean that in several ways: the narration switches from first- to third-person. It's a strange choice, but one that ultimately suits the style of this book. Riverman was largely about Alistair's pursuit of truth--be it in Fiona's story, his relationship with Fiona, or his own understanding of the world around him--and the first-person narration provides a lot of really crucial moments of introspection.

Whisper feels a lot questier, like The Odyssey, because he hops from world to world and meets one strange set of characters after another: we're less concerned with how Alistair in particular perceives what's happening and more concerned with what's happening to Alistair. We want--need?--the outside perspective on what's going on to map a change in Alistair.

Another of the major differences is that not everything we read is about Alistair. Interwoven with his narrative are several vignettes, stories about other kids who have gone to their own Aquavanias, have built their own worlds and given them up. I can't express how much I adored these--I believe in the author's own words, they are origin stories, and indeed one of them seems to be the origin of the magical otherworld and the Whisper. They read like fairy tales, the real, meaty ones by Andersen. Please don't ask me to explain what exactly I mean by that--these aren't moralistic like Andersen, to be certain, but nonetheless I get the same feeling from these origin stories as I do from, for example, "The Red Shoes" or "The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf."

Starmer wisely plays with the idea of the uncanny for much of the novel: there's something inherently terrifying about reality +/-, and the author exploits it to his benefit often. I don't want to be too spoilery, but let's just say that Alistair spends a fair amount of time in a version of his hometown; I was unnerved as he was by the tiny differences, by the slighty-too-flat population of the town. But all of the children's created worlds are like this, shifted minutely and all the creepier for it.

The thing I loved so much about the first book in this series is how creepy it was--rarely am I made to feel frightened by a book, but there was something about The Riverman that crawled into me and made me shudder. The Whisper exercises this chilly effect less often, but when it does, you really feel it--the uncanny, as I mentioned earlier, has a lot to do with that, but the most chilling moment is without doubt the ending.

However, if "creepy" is the mood-word I use for book one, then "lonely" is the mood-word for book two. Alistair spends a good part of the novel isolated in other people's worlds--even the sentence that I've just typed should clue you in on how lonely it is! Fiona was a lonely character in The Riverman, and Aquavania was a manifestation of that loneliness and an attempt to assuage it; the other children who have escaped to their fantasy lands are no different, and between their narratives interlaced with Alistair's and the wastelands and abandoned creations he explores...this book really punches you in the gut with feelings.

Aaron Starmer, you're great. You have written something delightful and dreary and dazzling and dreamy and destructive. If the rest of you haven't read this book, or what comes before it, stop wasting your time. We're so lucky to be on Starmer's journey. Ugh.

My rating: 5/5

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