How to Save a Life

How to Save a Life - Sara Zarr It's a jagged thing in my throat, how much I miss her.

This is a sweet, wistful little book, that is completely implausible in concept, but rather deftly written. The basic plot is that Jill's mum takes in a young girl who is pregnant as she (the mum) is going to adopt the baby when it is born, at which point the girl is free to get on with her life. It is pretty much obvious from the beginning that Jill's mum is going to end up adopting the teenager and have them all live together like one big extremely weird happy family.

I felt like everyone was drawn in a bit of a caricature. Jill is officially Not Coping with her dad's death, Mandy (pregnant chick) is super naïve and annoying, Jill's boyfriend is clearly getting less into their relationship, and Jill is clearly falling in love with this other dude. It's all pretty much set out at the start and everyone's issues are resolved in the ways that you would expect in your standard young adult plot. Everyone apart from Mandy is very nice and middle class and utterly respectable.

So why did I enjoy this? I don't know. Having lost my dad at a relatively young age, I'm always interested to find narratives that deal with this kind of sudden death in a realistic setting. I feel that this book did a reasonably competent job of it, though it stuck pretty rigidly to that idea that those grieving will find it difficult to let others in – until it all comes pouring out in one burst, and things start to get better, and that there is a pressure to “hold it together”. This can be true, and often is, and I certainly relate to some of it, but I feel like all too often grief is treated as a monolith, as a fixed object that reduces over time. Instead, it's mostly chaotic, or it was for me. I was largely fine, if extremely teary, after the event. It's only the months and years afterwards that give rise to what grief is, I believe for the majority of people – a shapeshifting monster of a thing that reappears when you least expect it and colours your entire perspective. I'm still grieving, now. My grief was and is anger and pain and misery and depression and anxiety – it was all of these things, differently, sometimes separately and sometimes simultaneously. It was and is not always visible and it doesn't manifest in the ways you would expect. All of this is okay. The number one thing you can expect on the death of a parent is that you are probably not going to be okay. As time goes on, what that means will change and dissipate, but the fundamental thing is that it cannot be undone and the grief does not leave. It just changes with you.

Anyway, to get back to the original point, I feel like this area is touched upon, but for the most part, Jill's grief is a bit of a monolith and I couldn't really engage with it. In the same way, Mandy's nasty background was a bit of a crayon drawing of a nasty background and she is the obvious result of it. The depth was somewhat missing. However, the writing was pretty exemplary, and I feel that's what really holds this story together. It's not reinventing the wheel – not even the YA wheel – but Zarr certainly knows how to put a sentence together and have you grasp the full meaning of it. It's not the just the words she does use, but the words that she pointedly doesn't use, that impress the nature of the characters on to you. And that's no mean feat. I'd definitely read something else by this author despite my slight misgivings about this book. I give How to Save a Life seven out of ten.