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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

What Beauty There Is by Cory Anderson

Updated: May 24, 2021

As the back cover tells us, winter in Idaho is cold. Cold enough to crack bones. Brutal. The words also ring true as an accurate description of this young adult novel. Once you open its pages, there is no way you can come away unscathed.

Jack Dahl’s father has been in prison for the last seven years. With his mother slowly slipping away, he finds himself the sole carer for himself and his younger brother, Matty. And then his mother is gone for good (note: a trigger warning, the book begins with a depiction of suicide). And the money is gone as well. Jack knows he can’t continue to feed Matty on leftover tins of beans and peaches. He also knows that there is no way he can let his brother be taken away. His one hope is the briefcase filled with money that sent his father to jail. But there is someone else who wants it too, someone who is pure evil.

Ava Bardem has grown up afraid of her father. He has taught her how to cure wounds that the law enforcement can’t be allowed to see. To him, she is his ‘little bird’, but she is aware of the brittle ground she walks on. She can see in his eyes that he enjoys causing pain.

When Jack and Ava meet, they are drawn to each other. When Ava becomes Jack and Matty’s lifeline, as they try to run away from her father and the police, the two develop an attachment that is never communicated verbally, but delicately hovers between them as all that might be, in another time and another place. The relationship of Jack and Ava, the book’s element of romance and yet so unlike a romance, is the darkness’s redeeming feature, the magical element added to the story that stops it from becoming completely disheartening. Jack’s burgeoning attraction to the girl who helps him with an infected wound that nearly kills him, combined with his concern that this is the first time a girl has seen him without clothes and he looks terrible, is an endearing and humorous relief. Jack’s care for his younger brother Matty, and his (often futile) attempts to shelter him from the realities of death, also function to maintain an innocent bubble at the heart of a violent world. At the same time, the reader is never allowed to get comfortable. Ava’s disembodied voice narrates the beginning of each chapter, speaking across time, warning the reader of horrors to come, drawing out the suspense.

Grief, perseverance, love, loyalty, independence – these are the novel’s harrowing themes. In a book that Ava has been given by her father is the poem by William Ernest Henley, ‘Invictus’. Its haunting and yet unapologetic lines, ‘My head is bloody, but unbowed,’ culminating in ‘I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul’, capture the novel’s transcendence over pain. Even amidst pain, the novel’s concluding argument is that there will always be beauty.

The one thing I found myself struggling to reconcile was Jack’s fear of the police. The police took Jack’s father when he was young and he fears they will be the means of separating him from his brother. But even when he reaffirms to his younger brother that the police are the good guys, he will still go to death’s door rather than allow the police to find them. Then, when the police appear at the crucial resolution of events, Jack’s change of attitude towards them goes without significant mention. We, the reader, know from the beginning that Doyle, the detective in charge of Jack’s case, likes him and only wants to help, something Jack doesn’t know. Still, it is hard to avoid thinking, if Jack had accepted help at the beginning, none of this would have happened! But then there wouldn’t be a story.

The author lives in the mountains, and often writes sitting in the woods. The cold and icy loneliness of such a locale seeps into the story’s lines and its characters. This is a captivating thriller, and will appeal to older teenagers who can appreciate the depth of its themes. Like the story itself, the ending is bittersweet – but I won’t spoil it for you.

Reviewer: Susannah Whaley

Penguin, RRP $23


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