Saturday, 28 March 2015

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

This is the kind of book that brings all the walls down. From the way thirteen year old Noah sees the world, uncontained, art literally spilling out of him, to the way Jude breaks down the barriers she and her family have put up to try and protect themselves, not to mention the magical writing, the way that it is about everything, not just one thing, and the way that Jandy Nelson and her characters bring you in, tip you upside down, and turn you around, remade, at the end.

Twins Noah and Jude have been dividing up the world since they were little: one of them would take the sun and the flowers, the other the moon and the stars. But it’s not so easy to divide their parents – Noah’s relatively okay for Jude to have their dad, but Jude’s not so happy for Noah to have their mum. And that’s probably where it all starts to go wrong: when they decide to apply for exclusive high school, California School of Arts (CSA), Noah’s work pours off the page, creating an extra bond between him and their mom, while Jude keeps her art close to her chest. And it’s when Noah and new neighbor Brian become inseparable friends and Jude starts to hang out with the surf dudes; when their mother starts to step outside of herself; when love and possession make it impossible to share anything anymore.

Cut to three years ahead and everything is different. But not only different: reversed. Noah seems to have taken on Jude’s former role in the world, and Jude Noah’s. Things are breaking left, right and centre. But what happened? How did things get to be like this? In a last ditch attempt to keep her place at CSA and try to rid herself of her ghosts (yes, literal ghosts, not metaphorical ones) Jude sets out to convince the renowned but reclusive sculptor, Guillermo Garcia, to mentor her and teach her to carve stone. Her mother interviewed him once: “He was the kind of man who walks into a room and all the walls fall down,” she said – and Jude’s about to find out how true this sentiment is.

But the thing about what happens after the walls fall down? You get a chance to remake the world.

This is one of those books where I just know I’m going to feel the urge to collect as many different editions of it as possible – the proof copy Walker kindly sent me, the hardback, the paperback. Some books just demand to be read and treasured and this is one of them. All the things I want to say about it are spinning around in my mind all at once and defy being turned into words. I love the way Noah looks at and sees the world, the way he and Jude think magically, the way he is – mostly – not afraid to love, how he wears his emotions on his sleeve and, conversely, how afraid Jude is to let one drop of hers out into the world. It makes me want to go out and see the world the way Noah sees it.

I also really like that, although I’ll Give You the Sun is told in alternating parts by Noah and Jude, unlike a lot of novels that take this approach, the two viewpoints jump across time. Noah’s words come from his thirteen/fourteen year old self – where things are coming apart – while Jude’s words come from her sixteen year old self – looking at what’s fallen apart and how it can be fixed. I thought this was quite an unusual approach and it works really well. The effect is to highlight the differences between the old Jude and the new Jude, the old Noah and the new Noah – or, at least, that’s how I interpreted it as a reader. But the trick is that when they’re thirteen you pretty much only see Jude through Noah’s eyes, and when they’re sixteen you only see Noah through Jude’s eyes. So who’s to say they really are that different from when they were both thirteen? Because, even though they’re twins, perhaps they don’t show each other everything about themselves, no matter how much they might like to believe that they do. Perhaps the young Noah is still hiding inside older Noah? And perhaps the young Jude that Noah sees isn’t really who she is either. We’re all good at putting up shells for people to see, after all.

This is a book about secrets, the things we say and do to try and protect both ourselves and those around us from getting hurt – except this act usually winds up doing the hurting, constraining our lives and our hearts. This is a book about how love takes many forms and how art takes many forms, and how souls can touch one another but still need to have their own space to grow. Noah and Jude and the other characters that take our hearts in this story – Guillermo, Dianna, Ben, Oscar, Brian – are all living in a form of suspended animation, and each of their intertwining relationships plays a crucial role in the story and the stories they have told one another: Noah and Jude, Noah and Brian, Jude and Brian, Noah and Dianna, Noah and Ben, Jude and Dianna, Dianna and Guillermo, Noah and Guillermo, Jude and Guillermo, Jude and Oscar, Oscar and Guillermo. Which gives just a taster of how many different things are going on in the story.


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