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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Review: Split by Swati Avasthi

Title: Split
Author(s): Swati Avasthi
Genre: YA contemporary, family, abuse
Page Count: 280
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

The Summary: Sixteen-year old Jace Witherspoon arrives at the doorstep of his estranged brother, Christian, with a re-landscaped face (courtesy of his father), $3.84, and a secret.

He tries to move on, going for new friends, a new school, and a new job, but all his changes can't make him forget what he left behind. His mother is still trapped with his dad. And his ex-girlfriend is keeping his secret--for now.

Turns out there are some things you can't just walk away from.

Swati Avasthi gives us a riveting portrait of what happens after. After you've said enough, after you've made the split--how do you begin to live again? Readers won't be able to put this intense page-turner down.

--from the cover flap

The Review: I fell deep into this novel from page one. The thing I really enjoy in YA lit is that a lot of them take you deep inside the character’s psyche, and this novel delivers on this aspect in spades. Perhaps it might seem problematic, to identify so much with a bruiser - because, make no mistake, our narrator Jace does show signs of abusive behaviour – but I really appreciate the way the author handles this, getting us to fall in love with Jace while calling out his behaviour, and saying outright that it’s wrong. Too many times have I seen the boyfriends of YA lit showing “bad boy” abusive tendencies, that we are supposed to accept solely on the fact that he is the Love Interest, and can’t do wrong. This take on the bad boy is very refreshing.

And to look at the flip side, I also appreciate the fact that we get sensitive portrayals of Jace and Christian’s mother, who has stayed with their father for a very long time. There is no “Why is she still with him?” victim-blaming questions, but probes deeper, fleshing out her personality, her ties with her sons, and we readers get a realistic portrayal of their mother, her psyche. There are not inherently good or evil people: there is wrong and right actions, and owing up to what you have done wrong. By portraying her characters in this light, Avasthi makes her cast intricately complicated, and also that much more human.

I really liked Avasthi’s take on the meaning of family in a broken household, and the interactions between the two brothers in particular. In Sarah Rees Brennan’s post about this novel, she gives us a nice sentence on the deep probing Avasthi delves into in the interactions between the two brothers – one who stayed and one who ran away from home. “It isn’t a question of what you sacrifice, with family – it’s a question of who you sacrifice, and the answer is someone you love.” There’s that tension when these two severed brothers meet again, of not knowing where you stand, of tenderness towards familial ties. It was a relationship that was without a doubt, severely broken, but I as a reader found myself willing for things to work out, hoping desperately as I flipped through the pages.

This novel is one of those extremely character-driven types (ie. the ones I enjoy very much), and we spend all our time in Jace’s head. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. He was a very raw, intense character, and you can practically feel his anger bubbling on the edges, and with Avasthi’s deft hand she paint his narrative in a sympathetic fashion. I don’t believe I must agree with all of the protagonist’s actions or that they must be a good, upstanding person in order for me to enjoy their narrative; all I ask is that they have strong, convincing personas that fly off the page, and Jace fits this bill in spades. Of course, as we are in Jace’s head so much, we don’t really have a sense of the characters in the periphery, but the characters we do get to see are deeply complex and believable, whole beings.

Okay, let’s talk about the women! I love the women that surround Jace’s narrative. Both Jace and his brother are drawn towards “strong” women, ones who stand up for themselves, and I’m all for it. The women here aren’t, you know, the trophy love interest, their reward for being the Big Damn Hero, but fully fleshed out characters who not only interact with our boys, but react back. As much as this is very much a book about a boy, it is also about a boy who has significant interactions with other human beings, a lot of which are made up of women. This is no All-Boys-Exclusive-Adventure novel that forgets half the world’s population, and I’m all for it. I really enjoy watching Christian and Mirriam interact. Can I say how much I love Marriam? I mean, she’s not perfect, she’s bossy, and always sticks her nose into places, but she’s also very sincere, and does her best to help people. (Actually, she kind of reminded me of Hermione from the Harry Potter series, except, you know, an adult version who is less of a bookworm, in a mature relationship and of South Asian descent. AKA she is much cooler) I also liked how she was ethnically Asian and it wasn’t like, a big deal or the focal point of her existence; and how she didn’t feel like a token POC character (even though she is the only one who is explicitly stated in the text to be POC) because she was a very well-rounded character with agency.

I also really like the budding relationship between Dakota and Jace. It was kind of sweet and awkward in the will-they-won’t-they aspect, and I just enjoy seeing Jace’s joy around Dakota, hanging around her solely because he likes being next to her and how they go around being cute together over photography and dances and whatnot. I think a lot of his interactions with Dakota are him trying to start over for himself, changing the direction of who he can become into something better. I like how it’s not easy, but how sincere Jace is, how hard he is trying.

I personally had no pacing issues with this novel, but I’m starting to acknowledge that any concerns over pacing flies out the window for me when I get engrossed in a character-driven novel. With these types of books, the pacing could be all over the place, but I wouldn’t care a smidgen because I would be so in tune with the character’s mindset and character development starts to take precedence over any concerns over objective analysis on the sequence build-up. In other words, take my words on the pacing in this novel with a grain of salt. What I can tell you though is that Avasthi builds up character development very skillfully not only through character interactions, but in weaving key flashbacks into present events at opportune moments. Nothing felt out of place. As much as this novel explores dark issues and broken families, it is also a tale of hope and change. The ending was utterly satisfying, and I am looking forward to new works by this promising new voice in the YA market.

The Verdict: A dark, emotional, and ultimately uplifting novel that will grab readers by the heart. Our protagonist Jace is a compelling and strong voice that will captivate YA readers as they experience his struggles and pains. The character interactions are brought vividly to life by Avasthi’s talent as she asks probing and important questions about domestic violence and abuse. This novel will make you think, laugh, cry, and root for the characters with all your hearts. Highly recommended, especially to those YA readers who like their contemporary lit fare on the “edgy” side of the spectrum or those into character-driven storylines.

Rating: 4.5/5
Enjoyment: 100%

Title and Cover Discussion: I think the title is serviceable, but not particularly memorable. However, I confess that I am biased against one-word titles, my lack of enthusiasm may be influenced by this factor. With the cover, it looks very plain on the surface, but what I find interesting is the dual image of the two figures in profile if we look at the sides. I think the keys and character side profiles is a very interesting cover concept, but I’m afraid that it’s not the most polished cover execution. It’s a little too rough around the edges for my liking. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with the title or cover, persay. It’s just that I don’t find them particularly grabbing, and if I passed this novel by in the bookstore without prior knowledge of it, I may have just passed over it.

Title: C+
Cover: B


The Library Lurker said...

Wow, this book looks great! You did a really great job reviewing it!

Aarti said...

Wow, what a great review! This may sound odd, but I also really like that even though the author (presumably) is a person of color, she didn't infuse her book with that. She just wrote about people.

Diana Dang said...

I think this is the first time I've managed to read a review at such length. xD Fantastic review on the novel! I'll pick it up for sure if I want to get into that intense mode.

Jodie said...

I knew I'd heard about this somewhere else, thanks for reminding me of Sarah Rees Brennan's post about it. It sounds really good and an important part of the evolving literature on domestic abuse, a subject I think YA literature is making real progress in portraying from all angles.