This is the kind of book that gets me right between the ribs like a blade, but softer, like I’ve been running and my own body cuts itself as my breath heaves. Trying to talk about this book is a blinding overshare in the offing, my desire to remember myself as I was in a series of cutting anecdotes and sloppy regret almost overwhelming. I’m not going to do that this time, but that is just an accident that never happened, but could, and did, and will.
The Whole Stupid Way We Areby N. Griffin is written in the present tense about two teenagers, Skint and Dinah, in a series of building days, in a place that feels like my snowy Midwest, an adolescence parceled out in hats unworn and coats outgrown. Lots of people hate the present tense, which is fine, you’re welcome, but here it is the breathless presence of adolescence, that moves along presently until that final blinding tense shift at the end. The one that put the blade at my ribs solidly into my heart.
I honestly don’t know that this book will track with young people, which is the usual shame of youth being wasted on the young, or them being cursed with it. I’m not even trashing young people here; I didn’t know like Dinah how all of my present tense flailing was going to turn out. Skint and Dinah are fierce friends, on the edge of something more serious than simple sexual attraction, running bullshit and antics. Dinah, she can almost see the shape of Skint’s damage, his coatless pain and anger and violence, but she’s too happy and grief-stricken and herself to see him in a resolution that makes sense.
It’s all a long breathless anecdote: I had this one friend. One time, I got a call from my grandmother that Grandpa was dead. I brought videotapes to my sister when she was sick this one time. A million stories that I’m not going to tell. One time, Dinah and Skint saw a dancing donkey, and waved to two old people on a porch. One time there was a box of food in the food shelf, and freezer full of fish. Once, Skint thought so hard about Dinah that he almost put her through a wall. Memory is violence that never happened, or could have, or did. Once, I grieved for myself and everything I did wrong trying to do right. Memory is holy because it is profane, because it is mistakes unmade and in the making.
I don’t know. This book is beautiful, stark, voice-driven young adult literature of the highest order. I love it. I love it like grief and my present-tense adolescence that cuts a stitch in my side if I think about it too much. It’s the brutal, gentle ‘I am’ that puts me right through the wall.
(I received an ARC from a bookseller, but no expectations were put on my review.)