by Neal Shusterman
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi
Author: Neal Shusterman
Published: February 2021
Publisher: Walker Books
Pages: 400 [paperback]
Thanks to Walker Books for a copy of this in exchange for an honest review!
This was an interesting read. I thought I was going to love it more than I did in the end – it tackles some really big ideas but I need to think on it some more because I’m not *quite* sure what the point of it was.
What’s it about
This book has quite a unique concept going for it where the main character finds himself jumping into parallel universes. He’s a quarterback (I think that’s gridiron, I’m really not a sporty person so I have no idea), and one day he tackles someone so hard that when he comes to, the world has changed.
Shusterman is tackling big issues in this book ranging from racism to queer identity to sexism. The main character, Ash, has to try and work out what has changed with each shift and finds himself guided by these alien beings who are helping navigate these shifts in the hope he shifts the world into a better reality.
In essence, Ash spends most of this book trying to get back to world he knew – the world he came from. It’s certainly an interesting read as we navigate each of the parallel worlds to see what changes have happened and how that affects things.
Why I didn’t like this
I was so confused at the end of this book. I love all of Shusterman’s other books that I’ve read, but this really didn’t do it for me. That may just be me, so I still encourage you to read this if the blurb tickles your fancy. But I felt like Shusterman was trying to answer big, important questions in this book, but in the end, didn’t answer anything.
I spent a bit of time trying to work out what it was about this book that felt so unsatisfactory to me. It wasn’t hard to read, I enjoyed the experience, but I kept trying to put my finger on something that just didn’t sit right with me. And I think it wasn’t until I reached the end of the book that I realised what it was.
The book doesn’t say anything important at the end of the day. It’s toeing the line with the concept of ‘poverty-porn’, but in this case ‘minority-porn’. I so wanted there to be some real substance to each of the marginalised situations that Ash finds himself or friends in, but it comes off as more of a cursory, curious look into a world that Ash finds interesting, but just walks away from.
The story didn’t address anything new for me. It felt as if the main character was spectacularly ignorant of what it means to be marginalised and was continually amazed by the fact that some people had it hard. I don’t know if this book is meant for a younger audience who haven’t spent many years contemplating how to change the world for good, but the main message I got from this book is that a male, white character is having an awakening where he goes: oh shit, life is hard for some people. Who knew.
There was this real sense that Ash’s way of fixing the problem, was to walk away from the problem. He wasn’t learning anything of substance about what it means to be black, queer or female. There were no solutions offered. All of his energy is focused on finding a way to get OUT. To run away from the problem because it was too hard to fix. I worry that the message of this story is lost in its execution. I can tell what Shusterman is trying to say, but it felt like the solution was to slip back into the world you know and breathe a sigh of relief that you can’t see the problems so obviously anymore – out of sight, out of mind.
Click to view major spoilers
I thought I’d take a second to list out some major spoilers and outline what really bothered me. First of all, the book finishes with Ash back in his world with nothing different other than the wool removed from his eyes. He’s promised that he’s going to be great and do something amazing with his life. The white, male protagonist fixes no issues, brings the world back to exactly how it was, and gets promised greatness. Hm. The following are two examples of times in the book that made me pause to question what was the actual purpose of the book.
1. The one time Ash does something to try and support integration and stand up against segregation in the racist-focused world, he gets Leo (his best, black friend) in jail inadvertently. Leo does not get out of jail. Ash focuses on changing the world to avoid the situation altogether after one failed attempt to bail him out.
2. In the world where Ash is a girl, the way he escapes the trickiness of this reality is by running in front of a bus after his abusive boyfriend is severely disabled with a blow from a baseball bat to the neck. Not once in the book does anyone stand up to the abuser, instead, it becomes an analysis of how difficult it is to leave abusive relationships. This probably would’ve been a good section to take the opportunity to explore ways to help people get out of these situations and not say, oh it’s complicated.
I’m disappointed by how many problems I found with this book. It was such an interesting concept and I wonder if it would’ve worked better if just one of these HUGE issues was tackled, rather than everything. I have no issue with the bleak depiction of the world to highlight what reality really looks like, but I think some sort of solution should’ve been offered. People’s problems are not a museum of curiosities. There are plenty of people who have enjoyed this so, like I said, read it yourself and see what you find. But for me, this was a letdown and served as a window to take an interested look into the hardships of others, but ultimately offer no real solutions to some very real problems.
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