People write journals for all kinds of reasons – to record history, to express emotions, to confide without doing it face-to-face etc. Authors also use the device of journal telling for all kinds of reasons – to explore a character’s deep emotions that they would never reveal to anyone else – to explore a character’s unreliability – for do we tell the truth even when we are writing just for ourselves?
Susin Nielsen has manipulated the journal style for her latest novel, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen. It can be difficult to hold the attention or suspend belief when reading a novel purposefully written as a journal, because everything has to be reported in past tense as already having happened, and also because the dialogue has to be written as reported rather than immediate.
Henry’s journal is reluctant because his therapist has suggested that he keep a journal to help him process what happens to him in the aftermath of a terrible incident. The reader knows from the outset that this is a troubled young man, but the incident that led to his therapy is merely mentioned as ‘IT’ in the text. Only gradually do snippets of information become apparent, as Henry’s thoughts mean that he cannot hide ‘IT’ from himself any longer.
The reader does know that Henry has moved with his father to a new city, where they can live fairly anonymously. He starts a new high school, makes a couple of friends, and does his best to avoid the nosy neighbours in his new apartment block. The reader also discovers that his Dad is also not coping particularly well, and that his mother is living elsewhere, until she is well enough to join them. It’s not a happy family.
The past gradually seeps out through incidences in the present, and Henry reports it all, including (be warned) descriptions of extreme bullying, death and violence. The occasional emotion is written and then crossed out, as if to say that even admitting the truth to himself is difficult.
This is an interesting tale of a normal thirteen year old, disturbed by hugely violent events in his family’s past, and trying to come to terms with how to cope and define himself after the event. It’s also a powerful tale of not judging someone by appearances, bullying, the preciousness and at times, difficulty, of being a sibling, and the wonder that is a loyal friend.
There’s much to admire in this compelling tale, which reminded me at times of Rebecca Stead; the device of having a reader see more than the narrator of the tale sees. It profiles a troubled protagonist – this one slightly chubby, red-haired – not the high school jock by any means, but also not a typical outsider. Terrible things happening to an average boy, which is why it strikes a chord.
Neilsen’s writing is precise and stirring. Through a captivating teen voice, she elicits great emotion, and explores a difficult area. The characters are all convincing – from the dorky friend Farley, to the wonderfully depicted neighbours – seen at first as stereotypes in Henry’s eyes – the Indian man and the lonely blonde woman – but then they come to life with their own distinct histories and foibles the more Henry gets to know them.
Every scenario felt real, every character well-fleshed. Moreover, for this reader, some spectacular resonances – a reference to an old film called Ordinary People, and a clear inspiration from Wally Lamb – which meant that I personally felt an affinity to this young adult novel. Although for younger readers, references to this film, and Fatal Attraction may be unknown. It’s a dark read, with only occasional glimpses of wry humour, but one well-worth experiencing. Henry might have been reluctant, but this reader wasn’t. You can buy it here.