Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen - Susin Nielsen

Title: The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen
Author: Susin Nielsen
Publisher: Tundra Books, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 243 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: November 7, 2012
Finished: November 9, 2012

From the inside cover:

Thirteen-year-old Henry's happy, ordinary life comes to an abrupt halt when his older brother, Jesse, picks up their father's hunting rifle and leaves the house one morning. What follows shatters Henry's family, who are forced to resume their lives in a new city, where no one knows their past. When Henry's therapist suggests he keep a journal, at first he is resistant. But soon he confides in it at all hours of the day and night.

In spite of Henry's desire to "fly under the radar," he eventually befriends a number of oddball characters, both at school and in his modest apartment building. And even though they know nothing about his past - at least, not yet - they help him navigate the waters of life after "IT."

Susin Nielsen has created a fantastic new character in Henry, whose journal entries are infused with humour and provide a riveting read about a family in turmoil.

*Here there be spoilers*

After reading Word Nerd and Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom, I knew I would read anything this author wrote. Her new novel, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, although darker than her previous books, is positively brilliant and stunning. Told in a series of journal entries, we follow Henry and his family try to put themselves back together after an unthinkable tragedy.

We first meet Henry in his therapist's office where he reluctantly writes in his new journal. He talks about "IT" but doesn't explain what it is, and every time someone asks him an uncomfortable question (usually relating to "IT"), he blows them off while talking in a robot voice.

Eventually Henry divulges exactly what happened to the family months prior in their old home of Port Salish: his older brother Jesse, after months of being bullied, took his father's rifle and killed himself and the boy who bullied him. What makes matters worse is that said aggressor's little sister is Henry's best friend. The family of the bully launches a wrongful death lawsuit, Henry's mom has a nervous breakdown and ends up in a mental hospital in Ontario, and Henry's dad moves them to Vancouver to try to start fresh after receiving death threats in their home town after the incident.

I'll be the first to say I thought this book would revolve around a suicide due to bullying, but never thought it would involve a shooting as well. With that dynamic thrown in, the book takes on a whole new meaning. I find people always think about the victim and their family in situations like this, but never about the shooter or their family, even though the shooter's family (and sometimes the shooter themselves) are just as victimized.

I loved how incredibly real the entire book was, it didn't shy away from anything. We learn about Henry's journey through therapy to try to move on after the tragedy, about the depression experienced by both of his parents (more so by his mother), about the graphic nature of the tragedy itself and the bullying incidents that came before, and about the coping mechanisms employed by the families. Henry is a funny, geeky kid, which is good because his humour breaks up the really dark parts nicely so it doesn't get overly depressing. Henry meets other damaged people (I loved Mr. Atapattu) that help him come to terms with his grief and feelings about his brother so he can move on, although acknowledging the process will definitely take time.

Not only is this a good book about the ramifications of bullying (both for the bully and the bullied), it's a wonderfully sensitive portrayal of the aftermath of a tragedy experienced by a teenaged boy.

Read this. It deals with a lot of extremely sensitive subject matter so this definitely isn't a title for everyone, but I think if you can get past the shock and manage to keep reading, you'll find something beautiful here.

Thoughts on the cover:
The cover definitely doesn't insinuate that the book is as dark as it is, but the images fit with how you'd think a boy who loves wrestling would decorate his journal.

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