Nominate in haste, repent at leisure?
Well, not quite. But… I’m not entirely surprised no one, in effect, seconded this one.
Wild Awake is a debut, and while I don’t have a full sense of the year’s debut slate, from what I’ve read and from what I’ve passed over reading (there are so very many latest-hot-craze books among the debut titles), it’s a strong debut.
In fact, there are aspects that are outstanding. And then there are some aspects that strive, but don’t quite stick the landing.
Kiri’s descent into mania is very good. Smith does a bang-up job with the tricky balance of a first person narration that needs to tell the reader more than the narrator knows she is telling. There are even clues — foreshadowing, maybe, or even the start of Kiri’s emotional spiral — well before the onset becomes clear, and it’s chilling to read Kiri — likeable, often drily funny Kiri — relay, in her same engaging tone, terrifying details as she loses her grasp on reality (witness the azaleas and her cheery “they’re diseased!”). I don’t know enough about manic-depression to know whether Kiri’s experiences are clinically accurate, but within the context of the book and my limited knowledge, they ring true, which is certainly a kind of accuracy and worked for this reader.
I find that we often forget to applaud voice and style when they are unassuming. Kiri’s voice is real — always true to itself, believable as a teen girl’s voice, and that’s no small feat. It doesn’t call attention to itself, doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary — but it’s steady and consistent, and it doesn’t do anything wrong, either, which is so often not the case. Despite the issues I have with the larger plot, within the context of the novel (and taking on faith some aspects of the story, detailed below), Kiri’s voice rings absolutely right, all the more so as she (oh-so-logically) starts to lose it.
Even better is the love affair with Skunk. There is a tenderness and realism here that is beautifully evoked — Kiri is a a teen discovering a whole new layer of physical, sensual awareness, all of which comes through beautifully. The omelets, the delight in Skunk’s body, the desire to toss everything else aside to be with him, the fierce protectiveness — and the twist as it becomes clear just how unhealthy they might be for each other, but also how necessary. Kiri and Skunk feed off each other. In retrospect some of the romance is clearly fueled by his paranoia and her mania, which adds a poignancy to what at first just reads as a growing love.
So what doesn’t work?
In short, too many contrivances and conveniences*, all of which seem designed to make the book work but don’t seem rooted in truth. (Or, if you prefer sticking to the criteria-specific terminology, too many inaccuracies.)
As in last year’s The Butterfly Clues (of which Kiri’s search for Sukey’s lost things was very reminiscent, so consider this a potential readalike), the dangerous downtown feels way too safe. Doug and the other hotel residents all want to help Kiri; she watches someone shoot up on the steps of the old hotel, sure, but that seemed unlikely and as if it was there just to illustrate the danger for the reader: “Junkies shooting up in the street! Oh no! Bad dangerous downtown!”
(*If you click through, you will see I actually used almost the exact same phrase almost exactly a year ago when I reviewed The Butterfly Clues, although I didn’t realize that until I checked the link just before posting. I think this speaks to how much the flaws in these two debuts reminded me of each other, so I am going to leave the phrase here as well, even if it makes it seem like I lack synonyms. And in all fairness the problem is much less pronounced here.)
Then there’s the five years in which Kiri has lived in ignorance of what really happened to Sukey, which strains reader credulity. Lukas, for instance, clearly knew more than Kiri, which means other people knew more too, and people talk. Even Denny knows some pieces, so clearly people have been talking in Kiri’s own house. If Kiri had been younger when Sukey died, or less obsessed with her adored older sister (witness the box of keepsakes), maybe. But given the parameters we as readers have, it takes a big ol’ willing suspension of disbelief for this to work.
But the ultimate downfall of the book is the lack of depth in setting and secondary characters. Kiri’s parents remain ciphers, despite how critical they are to the overall story — they are just tangible enough to make their willingness to leave Kiri, even if Denny had been available the whole time, utterly implausible. It’s also hard to believe Kiri and Lukas were ever really friends, because there’s so little sense of that in their relationship. Indeed, Kiri’s life is a blank slate before the events of the book, and the first chapter — Kiri and Lukas getting high, Kiri envying him his family — is far too little to balance the overall lack of depth in character or world. Where are her friends? What does her life look like normally? What does she like? Music, presumably, but that also doesn’t come across: she doesn’t know who Phil Coswell is, despite how huge and local that story appears to have been; the only passion displayed is for Skunk or as part of the mania (a passion for getting things done, rather than for the things themselves; passion that is clearly unhinged, as in the scene towards the end when Kiri decides she can’t be afraid of the music anymore, rather than a true wellspring of interest).
Might this all be symptoms of the mania? Yes. But the text doesn’t support that reading enough to make it certain, so it’s left to the reader to determine
I put Wild Awake on the long list when I read it this summer because it makes for a strong single read and I finished it thinking yes, contender. Most of the flaws barely registered — a sense that some backstory was a little unlikely, a few things that were too easy, all so mild that I just read right over them and focused instead on Kiri’s descent into instability and the relationship with Skunk, which was the heart of the novel and fascinatingly problematic. But it doesn’t stand up to a closer scrutiny, and that’s a death knell for Printz aspirations.
Maybe we’ll see a Morris instead. I certainly wouldn’t mind.