Book Review: What I Leave Behind by Alison McGhee
Goodreads Description: After his dad commits suicide, Will tries to overcome his own misery by secretly helping the people around him in this story made up of one hundred chapters of one hundred words each.
Sixteen-year-old Will spends most of his days the same way: Working at the Dollar Only store, trying to replicate his late father’s famous cornbread recipe, and walking the streets of Los Angeles. Will started walking after his father committed suicide, and three years later he hasn’t stopped. But there are some places Will can’t walk by: The blessings store with the chest of 100 Chinese blessings in the back, the bridge on Fourth Street where his father died, and his childhood friend Playa’s house.
When Will learns Playa was raped at a party—a party he was at, where he saw Playa, and where he believes he could have stopped the worst from happening if he hadn’t left early—it spurs Will to stop being complacent in his own sadness and do some good in the world. He begins to leave small gifts for everyone in his life, from Superman the homeless guy he passes on his way to work, to the Little Butterfly Dude he walks by on the way home, to Playa herself. And it is through those acts of kindness that Will is finally able to push past his own trauma and truly begin to live his life again. Oh, and discover the truth about that cornbread.
My Review: I was given a review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
"Let your feet find the way. You'll know it when they do. Then let the day drain out of you."
16-year-old Will copes with his father's suicide the only way he can: by walking out the days and spending his nights trying to recreate his father's famous cornbread. It almost feels like enough, until his best friend, Playa, is raped at a party, and Will decides to stop being complacent with his sadness. He starts by leaving anonymous gifts for those in his life, like Playa, and the Little Butterfly Dude, his boss Major Tom, or even the dog of insanity, kept tied up on a chain all day barking. When Will stops walking past everyone in his life and starts finding ways to bring them happiness, he discovers a way to reconcile his own trauma and finally move on.
What an incredible read! As the Goodreads description says, this book is comprised off one hundred chapters, each only one hundred words long. It makes for a short read, but the book still manages an intense emotional experience that lingers long after the last page. Perfect for reluctant readers, What I Leave Behind gives us a tiny peep-hole (the one-hundred word format) with which to view Will's world. It ensures each word is significant and makes the details of Will's life seem more poignant, since we're only offered a handful of them. This book deals with a lot of trauma, from Will's father's suicide to his best friend being raped at a party he was at, and looks boldly into those feelings, yet doesn't exaggerate or dramatize them. Will doesn't have a big breakdown or blow-up scene-- not to say those emotions aren't real, but they are rarer than media would let us believe. Instead, the book looks at the quieter sides of grief and sadness, through observations and showing the effect the emotions have on day-to-day life. In that way, the book creeps under the radar and quietly leaves a bundle of complex emotional truths at your feet, without the fanfare of a huge climax or staggering stakes.
From start to finish, the book is incredibly heartfelt. Will is a quiet, sensitive boy who feels powerless against the trauma in his life. His father's suicide was completely out of control-- even if he feels responsible for how their last interaction went-- and Playa's rape is something he can't control as well-- he can't be a vigilante and go after the rapists, and he doesn't know how to be the unconditionally supportive best friend. It leaves him in a pretty powerless situation, which I found to be incredibly true to life, especially for a lot of teenagers. Trauma, in whatever form it takes, is a beast that can't be solved quickly or cleanly, even in situations where you do have power to change things. So when we can't change anything, we have to figure out what to do to address the emotions left behind. Will does this by doing anonymous good deeds for those in his life, which gives him mastery over his situation as well as connects him to those most important to him.
As for writing, the book is simple, straightforward, and well-constructed. The writing was all very purposeful-- has to be, because of the format-- and uses a lot of showing to bring the reader to the emotional points. Instead of showing strong emotions-- having a scene be dominated by the character's emotion-- the author carefully draws up an image that focuses on the reader's emotions about that scene. The author does this by carefully avoiding telling us the characters' feelings, and then by having the narrator be vague about how these scenes make him feel, purposely adding in phrases like, "You know?" to make the reader feel that, no matter their interpretation, the narrator feels the same. It's truly the greatest example of how showing can allow your reader to connect more with your book. As mentioned before, the book doesn't have much for a climax, or stakes, or a lot of tension. What we get instead are these powerful emotional highs and lows that connect with the reader and keeps them reading. If you're easily put off by a lack of tension, stakes, or plot devices, you may not connect with this book as easily.
All in all, this book is perfect for reluctant readers, or younger readers coping with trauma. I also strongly recommend everyone picking up this book, because it is such a beautiful look at trauma, what to do when you feel powerless in the world, and how to do more than just move forward.
TL;DR: 5/5 stars. The beautiful story of teen boy learning to move on from his trauma through random acts of kindness.