Monday, September 5, 2016

Review: My Heart and Other Black Holes

Author: Jasmine Warga
Genre: Young adult
My rating: ★★★★


Poems may get written because of it, songs may pull out their lyrics from it, and stories may be born from its dark womb, but there is irrefutably nothing beautiful about depression. It is not your garden-variety sadness; it is an ugly monster seeking shelter inside you, consuming all the happiness it can find there and eating up a bit more of you until you feel like an empty husk. It attaches itself to you like an additional vital organ, one that pumps away hollowness into your veins. It makes each day too hard to meet, and makes even the thought of smiling feel like a demanding chore. Ultimately, it can urge you to believe that dying—suicide—is a better alternative than living.

While it is established that depression and/or suicide are not pretty things, it still gets to be the bleak little muse of many of today’s YA bestsellers. The steady stream of these books hangs onto the twisted trend “depression is the new vampire”, though fortunately for us, many authors treated the subjects responsibly. I have not read a lot of them, but I think I have tasted enough in Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, to name a few. I distanced myself from the YA shelves for a while when it started to get too bandwagon-y, but I gave them a shot again through Jasmine Warga’s My Heart and Other Blackholes. I am glad I did.

The story follows sixteen-year-old physics nerd Aysel Seran who, after her father committed a crime that rocked her small town, has developed a morbid little hobby: plotting her own death. Her problem is that she is not brave enough to do it alone. So when she finds a website with a section called Suicide Partners, she is convinced she has found the solution—Roman, a teenage boy haunted by a family tragedy, is also looking for a partner.

The two then start a suicide pact, inadvertently forming a bond that is grounded on their own deaths. They even set a date. But when the countdown starts and their remaining days alive deplete, Aysel begins doubting if they should go through their plan at all. She must decide if she will go on to take the plunge with him or try to make Roman see the will to live and consider their potential energy together.

Unapologetically moving and largely cerebral, My Heart and Other Black Holes is a story that wears depression as a gloomy overcoat but conceals a warm, enormous heart beneath it. I love how the dreary tone of narration is sharpened by piercing honesty yet softened at times with bursts of hope and humour (which, to my surprise, is not always of the gallows kind).

I liked how the author laid out two kinds of depression side by side and gently picked out the differences through the behaviour of the main characters. Aysel and Roman acknowledge that their depression are two different beasts, and they learn to understand each other’s damage without judgment. Their interactions are hard to not like, from their teasing to their understandably dark heart-to-hearts. They seem so natural, and I attribute it to Aysel being an honest narrator.

The plot is not really unique; even the synopsis at the back of the book speaks of an ending that is a predictable non-secret (the keyword is “transformative love”, which in turn dictated the carrying theme of the book). And even without that, the ending is something you can smell from a mile away, so yes: this is a tale of a damsel-in-distress and a bachelor-in-a-binder who chose to be accomplices to each other’s destruction but somehow ended up saving each other.

To be fair, the book hints of this perspective too. The whole “you saved me” theme is more underscored in Aysel’s case so it is not easy to see, but squint and you will perceive it in the case of Roman. Even if in the end he feels the same way for Aysel, he still thinks the world is a pretty dreary world to live in. He will need counselling, he will need people to talk to, and he will need to fight the urge to give in to the lure of ending his own suffering. The author is not sugarcoating that.

Now, we get to where I think the novel gets a not-so-little faux pas. Personally, I think depression is not something that romance can easily scoop you out of; it is something that you have to individually grapple with and may take years—eternities—to win against. Talking to other people may help, but the battle is still with you. Nobody can slay the monster inside you but yourself.

Somehow, though, I am grateful that the ending has a hopeful note…if only for the benefit of the depressed souls who may choose to pick this up. However, I reiterate that this may still give the false idea that love alone can magically cure depression. I half-hoped that the author would choose not to go down that way, that romance will not be the sole reason for the choice for survival, but I guess we're still in the YA section after all?

Looking at it another way, Aysel did need someone to enlighten her about what she is going through, though it must be noted that she stood up against the "black slug" living inside her on her own volition. She and Roman started off as friends, and I could attest to how friendship can work wonders to your well-being and mental health. I liked how the author toyed with the notion that the two characters are still fumbling with the idea of romance between them; there is a part near the end where Aysel admitted that she is in love with Roman, and backpedaled with a subtle remark about how he might think she was misusing the term. It gives an "are we or are we not" vibe to the whole thing between them, even though the readers may roll their eyes if we ever deny that the author is not waving the "romance" neon lights. I still wished they stayed friends, though. It could have had a bigger impact.

Lastly, I think the novel could have been so much better with an epilogue. After all, Aysel did have a life before Roman came into the picture. There is the lingering question about her father (I stopped questioning it when I thought she was not really in a hurry because she would not take the plunge at all; I also totally see how this was a way for our girl and her mother to reconnect, but STILL),about her siblings, and about everything else that have made her spiral down into depression in the first place. That may be a lot to cram in an epilogue, but taking a peek into the future would have been nice.

Despite its obvious flaws, I would still say I liked this novel. It is a story of two people with a knowledge that their pains are fingerprint-like in their uniqueness, but know that it would not stop them from being each other’s crutch. It is a story of two damaged souls who learned not only to navigate but also fill the cracks of each other’s brokenness. It is a story of acknowledging that you have to save yourself before you can save somebody else. And more importantly, it is a story about living more than dying.

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