Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Another YA surprise: The Underneath

The Underneath: My Reaction
It must be a good book. I've never finished a book before and been absolutely, compulsively driven to write a review. I am this time. But I hated the book.

The YA authors in my writing group agreed to each read one of the books nominated for the YA American Book Award. My choice/assignment was The Underneath by Kathi Appelt. I was completely excited: an award nominee about dogs and cats! Just my cup 'o tea.

Based on the following reviews, I guess I was expecting a beautiful, lyrical story about love for/between some animals. Thirty pages in, I felt slam-dunked.

"A mysterious and magical story; poetic yet loaded with suspense."-- Louis Sachar, Newbery Medal-winning author of Holes

"The Underneath is as enchanting as a hummingbird, as magical as the clouds." -- Cynthia Kadohata, Newbery Medal-winning author of Kira-Kira

"Rarely do I come across a book that makes me catch my breath, that reminds me why I wanted to be a writer -- to make of life something beautiful, something enduring. The Underneath is a book of ancient themes -- love and loss and betrayal and redemption -- woven together in language both timeless and spellbinding. A classic."-- Alison McGhee, author of the New York Times bestselling Someday

"Kathi Appelt's novel, The Underneath, reads like a ballad sung."-- Ashley Bryan, Hans Christian Anderson Award Nominee and Three-Time Coretta Scott King Award Medalist

All writers I respect. A lyrical story of redemption.

The writing is lyrical, alright. It's downright stunning prose, so much so that the only two comparisons I can make are Louise Erdrich and Toni Morrison. And the magic realism is comparable, too. It's a beautiful thing. It reads like a song.

But still, I hated it.

The song is so painful and so awful and so filled with despair, abuse, abandonment, death and revenge, that there's no room for redemption. I'm used to pain and sadness in stories. Conflict is what keeps us reading, right? But here, I had to keep setting the book down because it was too painful to go on.

Most of us are familiar with the phenomenon that watching animals suffer in a story or movie is worse than watching humans suffer. All too true in this novel. I felt as if my heart were wrenched out, flattened with a meat hammer and stuffed back into my chest cavity. Not once, not twice, but again and again and again. By the end of the book, my heart had no room to celebrate redemption. It only had room to lie there, flattenend but pulsing, relieved that the death and abuse and despair were over and that the three characters who had survived the course of the story could live in peace.

I remember, decades ago, seeing "The Fox and Hound" in the movie theater. When the hound falls off the bridge deep into the ravine to his certain death, I remember as a kid being acutely aware of the fact that in order to survive watching the story, I had to emotionally detach from the falling dog. I couldn't bear it. The dog survived, barely, but my heart had detached from pain too great to bear.
By the end of The Underneath, I had detached so many times, I had no attachment left.

The story is omniscient, but we have a third-person close view of nine different characters. Refreshingly, only one of them, is human. That's my favorite part of the story, besides the language.

The book crushed my heart. It must be a good book, if a week after I finished it, I am compelled to respond to it because of its emotional impact. But I still hate it.

Maybe it's not a story for obsessed animal lovers. It's just too painful. Maybe it's a great story if all creatures involved are metaphorical or just that--creatures. Maybe. This much I know: I sure don't ever want to read it again. I don't need that much pain.

I have another comment about the resolution of the story and even the magic realism being too much to swallow, and one physical conflict left completely unresolved, but there's no way to say anything about it without giving away the ending. If you want to hear it and have finished the book, please shoot me an email.

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