My Beating Teenage Heart by C.K. Kelly Martin is everything that I love about reading Contemporary novels, even though technically, it isn't really Contemporary...
The book starts with a nameless, unknown narrator falling through the stars and landing just above a boy, who breathes grief. We know nothing about the narrator, but can't fault them, because our narrator knows nothing about who they are either. The past is revealed in pieces to our narrator, (almost) 16 year old Ashlyn, but it's slow. For some inexplicable reason, Ashlyn has become tied to Breckon, a boy about her own age who is filled with pain and loss. She desperately wants to help him through his grief but is helpless. She's not a ghost, because she has no shape or appearance, and can't move, but rather she is a consciousness. It's hard to explain and something that I imagine everyone who reads this book will interpret and imagine differently.
The narration in this book is split between Ashlyn and Breckon. Ashlyn spends her time watching Breckon, aching for him, wanting so desperately to help him and trying to recollect the missing pieces of her past, figure out what happened to her and accept the fact that she is dead. Breckon's narration is both simpler and far more complex. He has so much grief and guilt roiling around inside him. Ashlyn's thoughts are nostalgic and contemplative, but Breckon's thoughts switch between numb and empty to intensely painful. There were a few times I had to pause to just breathe because Breckon's pain was so intense.
The dual narration in this book was perfect. Both Ashlyn and Breckon had their own distinct voice and there was never any doubt as to who was speaking. There were definitely times when it felt like I was intruding on a private moment, something that no one was meant to witness. Sometimes Breckon's thoughts just made me ache for him.
The supporting cast was also written very well. Breckon has such a strong support group, so many people who love him and want the best for him. His parents are trying to cope with their grief, just as hard as he is, his best friends try to be what he needs them to be, and his girlfriend wants to do anything she can for him. All offer him their love, all extend their assistance, and all are, at some point, both pushed away and pulled in by Breckon, who is really just trying to decide whether it's even worth it to hold on to life anymore.
Breckon really isn't okay. He's very clearly suffering and he's not really doing anything to try and move on. And honestly, throughout this book, I was never really sure, never felt that promise most books give you that things will turn out alright in the end. So I spent time wondering — Is he going to be okay? Will things end up alright?! And you don't know. I mean, you really just don't know until the end what he decides. Think about it — There are two narrators and one is already dead. So where is the promise that the other will end up okay. There isn't one. It's mean and sneaky and makes certain scenes just desperate. But oh does it add a level of urgency and reality to the story. Because in real life, you don't know, you can't know what someone is going through and whether or not they will end up alright.
My only real complaint with this novel is near to the end. I didn't feel like I got the information from Ashlyn about her life, but mostly about her death that I felt the story deserved and called for. There was a lot of build up without enough delivery, and while I understand how and why it was written that way, it didn't feel quite... right. But then I got to thinking, and although Ashlyn is given more narrative time than Breckon, although we hear her thoughts strongly throughout the whole story, the book is really for Breckon. He is the real main character, the real center of the story and although Ashlyn is undeniably important, Breckon is the star. And the book wasn't about death. Not really. It's about living. It's hard to pin down exactly what I'm trying to say about this idea without just letting someone glimpse into my thoughts but it's a story that makes me think about what it is to live.
Too much of this book is spent with a character in the space just after death for it to be considered Contemporary fiction. But is has all the things a good Contemporary novel can offer and it's a book that I am going to classify as Contemporary anyway.
I need to read more by Ms. Martin. If this is how she handles storytelling, her past and future novels are ones I refuse to miss out on.