“We Are Young” by Cat Clarke

I’ve read a few of Cat Clarke’s other books, so I knew this probably wouldn’t be lighthearted. Her stuff is the dark side of contemporary, exploring all kinds of mental illness and feelings — and to be honest, I always find that dark contemporary hits a lot harder than similar fantasy, because it feels so much more real. This book deals with death, suicide, mental health, emotional abuse — you know, cheery stuff — so bear that in mind if you decide to give it a go.

As I’d half-expected, this screwed me over emotionally. That’s not to say I didn’t like it, because it was powerful and well-written, but it made me feel like crap.

Publication date: May 3rd, 2018

I was actually slightly put off this book by the cover, which made me think it was going to be full of references I didn’t get. There’s just something about vinyl that suggest the kind of music and pop culture references which go straight over my head. But thankfully that wasn’t the case. I think the records are there because Evan, the protagonist, is a guitarist in a band and is passionate about her music, but it almost stopped me from requesting the ARC. I guess it’s true what they say… don’t judge a book by its cover.

As with all Cat Clarke’s books, this punches you right in the feelings. It’s got it all: friendship feelings (complicated by Evan’s best friends being her exes), family feelings (both positive and negative), and death feelings. The book more or less opens with a car crash, which kills three teenagers, one of whom Evan had been friends with when she was little. They hadn’t been close for a while, so she doesn’t feel anything at first, but the moment when her grief hit was… intense. The fourth person in the car was her stepbrother, Lewis, whom she really doesn’t know very well. Lewis didn’t die, but his arm was amputated and he’s in a coma for a lot of the book.

Over the course of the narrative, as she tries to figure out what happened with the crash, Evan gradually gets to know Lewis better — and realises her stepdad isn’t quite what he seems, either.

She also has a younger brother, and her relationship with him, her mum, and her biological dad (who is an alcoholic) are just as complicated and full of feelings.

It’s hard to talk about why this book emotionally screwed me over without too many spoilers. I’m reluctant to use the word ‘triggering’ in the context of a book that deals with mental health issues, because I think it was actually done pretty sensitively. Obviously, any book that deals with issues like suicide isn’t going to be a walk in the park, and probably shouldn’t be recommended to someone who might not be in the best place mentally, but I felt like Clarke struck a decent balance between addressing issues and not dwelling on them.

However… I’m not great at dealing with death. I am actually terrible at dealing with death. Especially premature death. I lie awake at night filled with existential terror that I’ll die young without achieving anything, or that the people I care about will die and I won’t be able to cope with, and this book somehow managed to set off both sets of feelings. It had siblings and friends dealing with the loss of their siblings and friends, so that side of it was hard, and then there’s also the whole concept of teenagers dying in the first place.

I don’t even know WHY I read books about death. I’ve got to stop doing it, because I always end up feeling anxious and miserable afterwards. (Also, I had an accidental nap shortly after finishing this and had some really disturbing dreams which, surprise surprise, involved death. Woke up feeling awful, and it wasn’t just because I’d slept through dinner.)

Point is: if you’re more emotionally stable than me (or just better at dealing with grief in particular), and you want a book that will hit you right in the feels, this one’s for you. As a bonus, it’s got some cute queer representation (Evan is bi, one of her best friends is a lesbian), and there’s also a strong focus on music that I enjoyed.

But I probably won’t be rereading it unless I want to make myself cry (in the bad sense of crying over a book, not the good sense).

I didn’t give this book a rating at the time (I originally wrote this review in April) and I’m not sure how to rate it retrospectively, so I’m going to take a guess and go for four stars. Take that with a pinch of salt.

Rating: ****

We Are Young (Amazon UK)

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