Saturday, 7 February 2015

Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer

Nobody knows what to do with Jam, and she doesn’t really know what to do with herself, either, except to live in the little world of memories of her and her time with Reeve. Reeve: this beautiful boy who lived and loved and died and left Jam alone. But now her parents have decided to send her to The Wooden Barn, a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers, and she’s got to get up and go to her first class, “Special Topics in English”.

It’s a legendary class, apparently, “Special Topics in English”. Jam’s roommate, DJ, is desperate know what goes on in the class, and desperately disappointed not to have been selected for it. Jam couldn’t really care less, though; she just wants to get through the day and go back to her own, private world. And at first at least, it seems like a pretty regular class to her, except there’re only four other students and the homework includes writing in a stupid diary.

Gradually Jam begins to assimilate to her new surroundings, though the grief of Reeve’s loss follows her everywhere just the same. But then, when she finally opens the journal and begins to write, suddenly she can feel Reeve’s arms around her again, she can smell him and touch him and talk to him. It’s like she’s being given another chance to be with him. Is she the only one this happens to? As the experiences of the diaries begin to create a bond between the Special Topics students, they each tell their stories and form a tight-knit group that no-one else can penetrate. But what will happen when the diaries run out of pages? Can they find a way to hold onto the places the diaries take them to? To the people and things they’ve lost? And should they?

Belzhar is a book that is very hard to put down – first you have to keep reading to find out about Reeve and who he was and what happened, and then you have to keep reading to find out what the other Special Topics students are going to reveal. And then you have to keep reading – because, well, you have to keep reading. And then you begin to wonder: is everything really quite how it appears to be? Because when one person is telling the story, when it’s first person perspective, you only have what that person is telling you to go on. And what if what they’ve told themselves happened isn’t the whole truth?

Meg Wolitzer has created a really interesting ‘unreliable narrator’ in Jam, and an emotionally heart-pounding story – not just Jam’s story, but the other kids too. Can they each find a way to do the right thing in the end? And what if they don’t? Make sure you’ve run all your errands and done all your homework before you pick this book up – because once you do, that’ll be it for the day.

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