Thursday, October 1, 2015

Boo (Neil Smith)

Thanks to NetGalley and Goodreads for the ARC in exchange for my honest review!

Sometimes I encounter books with character voices that are so strong I can't stop hearing them talk afterward. It's not often, which is what makes it a special occurrence. Boo, by Neil Smith, is one such story with a voice that didn't want to dislodge itself. Our voice this time is the same as the book’s title, a boy named Oliver who goes by Boo. He’s dead—recently so—and finds himself in Town, an afterlife that exists exclusively for 13-year-old American children.

Boo has been plagued by a holey heart since birth, which he assumes is what killed him, but after a classmate of his ends up in Town a few weeks later, he discovers the truth: he and the classmate, Johnny, have been victims of open gunfire at their middle school. Johnny is obsessed with discovering the identity of the killer and apprehending him, convinced that the shooter (referred to as Gunboy) also died in the shooting and may very well be in Town with them.

I've seen Boo compared to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and at first I understood and agreed with that comparison--that book, narrated by a boy on the autistic spectrum, features one of the most memorable narrative voices I've ever read. It's so strong, in fact, that even the chapter numbers are not safe: Christopher only numbers his chapters with prime numbers. Boo numbers his chapters sequentially, but he uses the periodic table instead of regular numbers. Characteristically-speaking, there are things about Boo, the main character of our tale, that reminded me of Christopher--his conception of social interaction is not the same as everyone else's; he's a loner; he detests physical encounters with other people.

But I have spoken out before about how unfair comparisons are, how they are intended as flattery but often get in the way of appreciating the book for how it stands on its own. So yes, Boo is removed from the realm of typical social interaction, but it’s more connected to a scientific remove from emotion than a place on the autistic spectrum. Boo wants to study Town, the way everything—even the people—self-repairs its damage, the way Townies never age but after 50 years disappear from Town forever.

Neil Smith really pulls off something marvelous here, because Town is so interesting that the book could spend its entirety exploring the rules of the world and I would have loved it anyway. This could have been a novel in stories the purpose of which was to explore daily life in Town and I would have loved it. Instead, Smith gives a lot of delicate, engaging world-building that does not dominate the novel. 
He lets Boo and his other characters take control of the novel; sure, Boo is a lovable oddball, but he isn’t the only personality to contend with. Of course there’s Johnny, whose aggression and anger about his own death are heartbreaking, especially in someone so young. There’s Thelma and Esther, too, characters whose personalities are vibrant and vivid; they act as stark contrasts to Boo without ever feeling cartoonish or ridiculous. Every supporting character, in fact, even the really secondary ones, feel developed.

From a plot perspective, I have to admit that I was surprised. About halfway through the book, I was confident that I had foreseen what was coming, and I felt a bit disappointed that it was so apparent and obvious what had happened. Fortunately, Smith pulled off a double-twist, and successfully. The plot doesn’t feel like merely a vehicle for the twists, either—the story even without the twist would have been engaging, because it doesn’t exist to serve the surprise(s) the story has to offer.

What is so magnificent about this story is how powerful the emotions are: creating a world filled with dead 13-year-olds provides fertile ground for thoughtful ruminations on lives half-lived, what we leave behind when we die, guilt, and grief. We don’t hear about those things through frustrating, overwrought platitudes, and I was genuinely touched by the conclusion of the story. A victory all the way around.

My rating: 5/5

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