“I was sent here because of a boy. His name was Reeve Maxfield, and I loved him and then he died, and almost a year passed and no one knew what to do with me”.
I really enjoyed Belzhar. I expected to, because it’s ‘literary’ YA contemporary, set in a kind of boarding school setting, with a little mystery. So yes, I did expect to enjoy it. But the more I talk about it with friends, the more I realise it did have quite an impact on me. I’d heard it was a bit ‘odd’ and ‘weird’. If you begin the book knowing that there’s a little bit of magical realism, you do expect there to be something a little different about the world the characters are living in, and in this case, it’s ‘Belzhar’.
Belzhar is a mix of contemporary fiction – a group of ‘highly intelligent’ and ’emotional fragile’ teenagers have been sent to The Wooden Barn, a stepping stone before they can go back to ‘normal’ life and a regular school. They’re there to work through their mental state, whatever that may be – sometimes caused by a particular experience, sometimes not – and one group of students taking ‘Special Topics in English’ discover Belzhar, a place where they can revisit what they’ve been through, but without the grief and trauma.
Belzhar has received mixed reviews so far, but don’t necessarily jump straight to thinking ‘okay, well I won’t read that one’, because it’s one where it’s actually brilliant that people have had such strong feelings about particular aspects of the story or characters. (And aspects that I’m not even sure we’re meant to like). It provides a lot to talk about, and how you feel about the book – and its characters – can depend on how you feel on the day. I would have enjoyed it even more if I had empathised with the main protagonist, Jam, from the very beginning – although I’m not sure if I ever empathised with her at all, but began to simply accept – but falling in love with a boy you’ve only known for 41 days will always be difficult for me to accept. I forgave Reeve’s stereotypically British behaviour because we’re seeing him through Jam’s eyes, and this was something she particularly loved about him. Although I felt this way towards the main character, I loved the way the story was constructed and the way it progressed – I thought it was clever, unexpected and quite thought-provoking. And it noticed that often people do go through things that have a profound negative impact on them, but seem insignificant to other people. It’s a book where you could easily write a review full of spoilers because there’s a lot to discuss, mainly ‘real or not real?’ and ‘acceptable or unacceptable?’.
If you’re unsure about Belzhar and yet you usually love YA contemporary novels, give it a go because it had a lot of the things I enjoy about the genre, but it also was refreshing in the way it looked at things a little differently.
Published: 30th September 2014 (US) 9th October 2014 (UK)
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile (US) Simon & Schuster (UK)
Source: Thank you to the publisher for providing this book for review!