“History Is All You Left Me” by Adam Silvera

This book created quite a dilemma for me: should I shelve it on my Goodreads “unbury your queers” shelf, aimed at books where major LGBTQ+ characters don’t die? The book opens with a bisexual character having tragically died young, which should really mean no, but the entire book is about three other queer characters learning to heal, to move on, and to live. Ultimately, things end okay for them.

I guess what we can conclude from this is that my classification system isn’t nuanced enough, and sometimes you can’t divide things up into ‘yes’ or ‘no’ categories.

history-is-all-you-left-me

Publication date: January 17th, 2017

I requested this book from Edelweiss because I saw a lot of positive responses to More Happy Than Not, and I thought I should give it a go. I ended up impressed by the quality of the book, but not exactly enjoying it, mostly because it’s just emotionally tiring. Not that I didn’t enjoy it as such, but it’s not an easy read.

I had a weird sort of knot in my stomach the whole way through this — it’s basically non stop feelings, which is quite intense. They’re not all bad feelings, because the book reflects on both the present and the past (the history mentioned in the title): we get to see laughter and happiness alongside grief and anger. But it’s a lot of feelings to deal with, and they’re wrapped up in Griff’s OCD-triggered anxieties, too. It says something about the quality of the writing that the reader experiences those feelings too, but it did make the reading process a little difficult. Perhaps I shouldn’t have read it all in one day — it might have been too intense for that.

This book deals pretty frankly with themes of grief, jealousy and guilt, as well as all the things that can screw up friendships and how much you need people to talk to when things are bad. It does so in a way that doesn’t seem didactic or like Silvera is trying to make a point, which I appreciated. On a similar note, I liked that although this book featured several queer characters, their issues and concerns weren’t about being gay. They seemed at ease with their sexualities and even coming out went well — their problems might have been about their relationships, but they weren’t about their sexuality, which was refreshing. It was nice to read a book about a m/m couple that was about more than just the fact they were queer, you know?

There are several elements I found particularly effective in the book, such as the way the truth about how Theo died is drawn out and revealed gradually. For the longest time, the reader only knows that it happened, not how. Not only did that make for a certain amount of tension, but it also felt realistic as Griff is narrating through his grief, and wouldn’t be likely to talk about everything all at once. At the same time, it’s not so much a plot twist as a series of puzzle pieces slowly falling into place, confirming or denying whatever the reader might have guessed.

My one complaint would probably be that the book felt a little bit long. It’s reasonably slow paced, because of the way it shifts between present and past, and because it’s more about character development than plot. Not that there isn’t a plot, just that it’s not intended to be a page turner: it’s a narrative of healing and so on. I said above that it might have been too emotionally intense to read in one day, and perhaps that was also why it felt so long, but it was definitely something I noticed.

This book is reasonably frank about sex, but not graphic, so while I’m not interested in that kind of thing I wasn’t weirded out or forced to skip long passages. Mostly, it just felt like a fairly realistic approach for this generation of teenagers, albeit those with accepting and progressive families who will joke about buying condoms for them. The whole book managed the “realistic teenagers” thing quite well, I felt, as well as putting into words some familiar elements of existential despair (what’s the point if we could die at any moment?) that made it a relatable read for me.

I haven’t read Silvera’s other work, More Happy Than Not, because I didn’t think I was in the right place mentally to read it. However, having seen how he tackles serious emotional experiences in this book makes me think I might give it a go when I feel up to it. The positive reviews I saw for that were a big factor in me requesting this from Edelweiss, so hopefully my review will encourage others to pick this up too.

I wouldn’t say the book is ENJOYABLE as such, because of the stomach-clenchy emotional tension I mentioned earlier (though I promise it gets happier as it goes on), but it’s definitely a well-written, thought-provoking book, and I’m glad to have read it.

Rating: ****

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