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Blink & Caution

Screen shot 2011 10 13 at 9.40.14 PM 198x300 Blink & CautionBlink & Caution has received stars from Kirkus and SLJ, and PW, a 5Q/4P from VOYA (per Books in Print), and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, plus it was just named a finalist for the Canada Council for the Arts Governor General’s Literary Awards.  So, you know, this book is no slouch.

And let’s get this out of the way up front: it’s a good book. It deserves praise.

But it’s flawed, and the flaws are literary in nature. And I’m mostly only going to talk about the flaws, because all those links at the start cover the good stuff really well and in great detail.

So, in case you haven’t read it, the plot in a nutshell: Two teens on the streets of Toronto, both damaged by their pasts, find each other and a mystery.

The narration alternates between Caution (“She was the one who came up with the name Caution for herself. Caution, as in Slippery When Wet; Caution, as in Harmful if Swallowed; Caution, as in Toxic”), who has left a comfortable rural life with a caring family after a terrible thing, and Blink, who has been living on the streets after leaving his abusive home life.

The Caution chapters employ a fairly straightforward third person narration, with some flourishes; it’s clear that the narrative is firmly fixed in Caution’s POV, and some of Caution’s personality (which underneath her guilt and misery is feisty, even funny in a dry way) comes through. She is perceptive and elicits sympathy: this smart, spirited girl should clearly not be living with a drug dealing tool who hurts her, but her guilt is palpable and she has deliberately put herself into a bad place to punish herself. The fact that Caution sees this herself only adds to her appeal as a character, and shows just how broken that tragedy in her past has left her.

But what about that tragedy? This is a minor quibble, and not a make it or break it in and of itself, but the story of just what happened in the past is doled out too slowly. Some of this pacing fits: readers are in Caution’s head to some extent and she doesn’t want to talk about it, but the suspense lasts too long given her utter candidness about herself and her situation in so many other ways. She might not want to think about what happened, but the character as she has been written wouldn’t be able to avoid it completely: the slow reveal becomes a device after a certain point.

Blink, on the other hand, gets press in the reviews for the daring second person voice. Second person always seems to call for oohs and ahhhs, and done well, it’s a marvel. But second person conveys a lot. In this case, the opening, second person narrative conveys a sense of insanity. It reads as if he is talking to himself, and he uses some interesting language (“You followed him to school one day, which was against the rules;” “Blessed Breakfast Uniform” — and that’s just from the first page). Schizophrenia? Reality disconnect? Some sort of Aspberger’s that he compensates for by narrating to himself his own experiences? This is a powerful hook: who is he and what’s wrong with him? If he’s this messed up, how can he solve this mystery he’s stumbled into?

Oh, wait: he’s got a tic*, sure, hence the nickname Blink. But mostly he’s just a guy who’s had a hard life. So why the fancy narrative? Why the misleading voice? My notes say “forced!” and “artifice!” once it became clear that there was no major mental complication behind that fancy narration (I tend to think in exclamations.) Blink doesn’t add up, ultimately, because the voice and the character don’t match. That second person narrative exerts a spell: you keep reading because you are being addressed, even though the “you” being addressed is actually Blink. It creates a forward momentum, and it’s beautifully done. But it’s not a voice that makes sense for this character given his later actions and the fact that under the nervous tics he’s a pretty normal guy (although naive and lacking confidence). I cannot fathom a purpose for this voice, and the moment I realized no explanation was forthcoming was definitely accompanied by the sound of a cracking windshield. More than that, the voice talks about Blink as if he’s stupid (“Your brain is hurting from all the information in your brain box…”) in really smart ways. Cognitive dissonance for Blink and the reader, which would be awesome paralleling on the meta level but only if it made sense in the context of the novel, which it doesn’t.

*Caution does ask if he has Tourette’s Syndrome, but doesn’t quite believe that diagnosis herself, implying that Blink’s facial tic (he blinks, hence the nickname) is relatively mild; also he seems less twitchy as the book goes on, which further indicates that the tic is likely an outward manifestation of stress or misery.

(I should note here that in her audiobook review, Liz over at Teacozy had a very different, and quite interesting take on the second person voice. If we were at the table together, we’d certainly discuss this difference of interpretation, although there’s a reason audiobooks have their own awards and lists.)

That might have been my break it moment, but by the time I had read enough to understand that something didn’t match between voice and character, I had gotten invested in both protagonists. So I kept going, although the mystery/suspense/action parts of the story were only interesting inasmuch as the (let’s face it, absurd) situation let them grow and rediscover their true selves (Brent and Kitty, lost souls in search of solace and love), making the second half of the book a less compelling read.

And then (spoiler alert): happy endings all around! Mystery solved! No significant physical harm! And they get to go home again, and they even get to kiss! SO HAPPY.

Ok, in all fairness, that’s overstating it a bit.

But their pain was so palpable for so much of the book, especially for Caution/Kitty, that the ease of the happy ending rang false. Life is complex. Brent and Kitty are complex. The language of the novel is complex. So why the overly simplistic ending? It’s just too easy, and it shows after the complexities of the whole. It also feels cheap. Would the ending have bothered me as much if I weren’t already looking through a crack? Maybe not, but on top of other flaws, the ending killed the book.

Don’t get me wrong: I put this book in my collection. I’ll recommend it. There is appeal here, in spades, and that happy ending might satisfy many readers who want light at the end of the tunnel. But at the table, assessing this for straight up quality of writing? I wouldn’t be able to support this one for a sticker. Even though I liked it, and even though I cried, it has too many issues that were, for me, fatal.

Pub details: Candewick March 2011. Reviewed from ARC.

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything (except current events, because she’s too busy reading YA literature to follow the news). Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Gigi says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for framing your thoughts about Blink and Caution in a way that helped me think more concretely about why I love the book so much. To your question on the use of second person, I tend to agree with Liz at Teacozy that this represented someone talking to Blink. I felt like Blink was drawing upon a loving relationship he could access emotionally. I thought it was with his grandfather, Granda. Definitely this felt subtle, but on page five “Do you remember the fairy tales Granda told you?” right away placed the voice for me as someone Blink loved and was able to carry with him.

  2. Martha P. says:

    The 2nd person voice definitely felt like the voice of Granda, which worked on many levels for me. One, it helped give Blink the same kind of emotional support Kitty/Caution has. (They both have loving families even though they are cut off from them for different reasons.) Two, it gave the climactic meeting between Blink and his lost-in-sinility Granda extra power, since it was as if Granda wasn’t so much gaga as away, shadowing and protecting Blink in his head.

    I also thought the ending was a lot less simplistic than you make it out to be and certainly not fairytale happy. They saw each other through a catharctic experience, fell in love with each other, and then wrenchingly split up to return to the families who had been there all the time for them; the fact that they will probably be happy together sometime in the future feels entirely earned.

  3. amy cheney says:

    I am SOOOOO with you on this one. fatal flaws for sure.

  4. I love these honest, smart, opinionated discussions more than I can say!

  5. EMKokie says:

    Hmmm, very interesting post. And I appreciated your inclusion of your discussions of the book with someone else, as well as your concerns or frustrations.

    I have to say, I am usually really distracted by 2nd person – it usually feels like a gimmick to me, and for me is usually too distracting to enjoy the book. But I accepted it and adapted well with Blink & Caution, and I think that is because I immediately assumed, without really consciously thinking about it, that the 2nd person narrator was addressing Blink as “you.” And that I found intriguing (who was it? Was it Caution? Someone else?), and it gave a nice, if mysterious, distance for Blink, which helped me not be overwhelmed given the very raw emotions that could have spilled off the pages from the combined points of view.

    I also had no problem with Caution’s block on talking about her catalyst into the life she was in (trying not to be too spoilery, just in case). For me, I almost felt some of her bearing it all was bravado, to hide that she was doing quite the opposite – denying the most true things about herself, and hiding that denial under piles of false openness.

    So, for me, both POVs worked well. But I can see that, if a reader perceived the 2nd person POV as Blink, speaking directly to the reader or to himself, it might create expectations that would ultimately become frustrating.

    For me, one of the commendable thing about Blink & Caution are that I thought it balanced very well the actual awful things these two teens had been through, and the reality that for many teens their reactions make whatever their situation worse. I actually very much appreciated that Blink and Caution came out the other side in much better, more hopeful places, in part because they stopped running, stopped getting in their own ways “home.”

    I found it to be an intense and pleasurable read, but I also very much appreciated that this is a true YA novel, because it was the adolescent imperfections and immaturities of the characters that added to their foibles and to their redemptions.

  6. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    While I was puzzled at times about who was talking to Blink, I didn’t seriously consider it was Blink or that he was crazy. Since it was being said by someone who knew more than Blink (the near misses of Caution), it being Granda makes sense. That said, it is very possible that this came from the audiobook narrator, who was terrific, and the narrator sounding like someone who, well, wasn’t a teen helped that. I was reminded of voice overs like Dragnet and even The Twilight Zone, or radio shows. I guess I never saw Blink as being more than what he said: a kid who had been abandoned by his father, abused by his stepfather, and thrown out by his mother. Neglected, yes.

    I also didn’t see the ending as overly simplistic; they are living in 2 separate towns, Kitty cannot just step into her old life and Brett’s grandparents are older and he has to caretake as much as takecare. That said, I was relieved beyond the telling that their wasn’t a Magical Baby (that would have been too over the top for me) and I wondered how realistic it was that Blink & Caution “got away” from the criminals/ex boyfriend. At one point, I was afraid that there was a body in the pond by the hunting lodge and was expecting something more violent at the end.

  7. Karyn Silverman says:

    Easy, not simplistic: the consequences feel diluted. I found myself thinking about the piece of the criteria about “realistic hope” at the ending (which I’ve always taken to mean uplifting): this ending struck me as a relic from an earlier time in YA, when happy endings were more or less required, so some punches always got pulled– exactly as Liz says: I wonder how realistic the getting away is (I also wondered how realistic Merlin and his crew were– Caution getting the money, Merlin tracking her– she’s both too in and not in enough for the power she wields, and anyway, I would have expected Merlin to try pimping her out. In too many ways, plot elements felt sanitized and made a bit easier than feels really true.

  8. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Karyn, in a way Merlin did pimp her out, with the sex tape. (I have to say, I was expecting more to happen with that). I’ve argued this back and forth in my head (yes, my head is a scary, loud place) and in terms of realistic, the “bad guys” are never shown doing true violence. I think that *I* brought that expectation because I began picturing the business man’s cohorts as very Sopranos/Joe Pesci, so I expected violence. If nothing else, this book falls under “great books for discussions” (as well as audio v text).

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Liz: A tape is at such a remove– it’s the sanitized version. Yes, it’s terrible and a violation, but still strikes me as a slightly pulled punch.

  9. Ed Spicer says:

    Emily, As someone who has lived on the streets and alone from a very young age, I found the voice to be just about perfect. You always wonder whether what you are doing will cause you to be noticed. You don’t eat the last bit of food from the refrigerator and you don’t eat the first bite of a casserole. You don’t touch high profile foods like cake. People will notice that–and you do not want people noticing you.

    I think the author has spent a fair amount of time speaking to folks who live on the streets and gleaning that there is this subconscious tic that has any given homeless person wondering whether his or her actions are appropriate. Doubt about your cleanliness, clothes, speech, ability to eat in public all bring about an omnipresent sense of not fitting in. And even after decades of living in a fairly secure home, I still have these moments: Are you smart enough? Do you belong? For me, Blink’s voice is absolutely on the money.

    So, I think that the voice makes sense both from the perspective of Blink speaking (which is what I automatically assumed) AND as you hear the voice. Whether any of the other issues folks are bringing up force the committee to pass on this one, I don’t know. I do hope, however, that it isn’t because of the near-perfect second person voice of Blink.

    When I went to Texas to speak about homelessness and libraries, I was driven to my hotel. On my way up to my room, I noticed all the room service trays. Since I was speaking about homelessness, I thought to myself that if I were homeless now, I would check into working at a hotel and I certainly would figure out a way to be in hotels regularly for all the “free” meals just waiting outside the doors. Two hours later, I was in the convention center in Austin. The good folks at Candlewick gave me a copy of a brand new book about a homeless teen–Blink & Caution! Great minds!

    This book is one of the major contenders for the ESP Award this year!

  10. L. Lee Lowe says:

    Hi Ed, I don’t think I’d bother with this one if I hadn’t read your illuminating comment. Thanks.

  11. L. Lee Lowe says:

    I’ve now read the novel and would like to add a few tentative remarks about second-person narration.

    Unless I’m misreading your post, Karyn, you seem to feel that a second-person voice is primarily indicative of mental instability: ‘mental complication’ and ‘cognitive dissonance’, in your own words. While this is often how the second-person POV is used, it has a potential richness well beyond such a limitation – irony, for one (and “You followed him to school one day, which was against the rules;” “Blessed Breakfast Uniform” are definitely ironical), and far more difficult technically, something for want of a better term I’ll for the moment call a multiple narrator. No one of us is a single voice, and all POVs in fiction are devices – art is always artifice – but the second-person voice , when skilfully yielded, can create a fruitful – as opposed to disturbed – multiplicity; a layering.

    Does Wynne-Jones bring this off? I don’t think so. Ed probably comes closest to W-J’s purpose (since we always have to ask before criticising any work of literature, What is the writer actually trying to do?) by his remarks on watchfulness and alienation, but an internalised Granda, while a possible reading, would need to be developed much more clearly from the outset to be effective.

    As to Caution’s secret, it’s really not much of a withheld secret except in the details. Almost from her first mention of a brother, we’re pretty sure what must have happened. Does this make the withholding of information a legitimate device? I haven’t quite made up my mind.

  12. L. Lee Lowe says:

    I also want to add that second-person narration works very differently in an oral context from a written one, i.e. the listener cannot help but feel addressed and in some cases will participate even more in the character – become more of the character – than in first-person narration. Hence the need to evaluate an audio version separately.

  13. Karyn Silverman says:

    I felt that Blink’s second person narration implied mental instability, because the second person narrative wasn’t Blink, at least as I read it (it doesn’t sound anything like him, based on what he sounds like in dialogue). The cognitive dissonance I referenced is actually as much the reader experience, though: there is a mismatch between that voice and the character. The second person implicitly begs certain questions (who is speaking, mainly, and why is he or she addressing me directly) but those questions turn out to be false questions. This leads to a dissonance because the book that voice implies I am reading (with additional layers and depth) isn’t the book I am actually reading (which turns out to be an action-adventure with street kids as the central protagonists).

    I agree with you about the granda interpretation: I would need a lot more before I could buy that.

    This has really gone down in my estimation as the year has gone on, not so much because of the voice and certainly not because of the characters, but because of the absurdity of the plot. But it’s on lots of year-end lists…

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