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Sunday, 29 July 2012
Sometimes when reading a book, only one word comes to mind. Not because the prose is lacking, or the ideas aren’t complicated enough to illicit more than one-word responses. Simply because a sort of stuntedness wraps your brain so that all you can do is try to keep reading behind endless circles in your mind of ‘wow’ or ‘incredible’. This is just my lame way of saying that even at the end of Steph Bowe’s Girl Saves Boy, even after scouring the dictionary for anything at all, I still had only one thought: how could anything be so sweet?

Don't spend the entire novel waiting for
fairy lights. They will, but not how
you expect.
GSB is a love story of two teenagers: Sacha Thomas, a terminally ill boy who collects garden gnomes from others’ gardens, and Jewel Valentine, an emotionally distanced sketch artist haunted by death. It begins as any happy story will, with Sacha attempting to drown himself in a lake and Jewel coming bravely to his rescue. This is their first meeting, and we are lucky enough to see how these two preciously damaged souls come together with their individual pains.

And sweet is definitely the single word which retains for me throughout the entire story. Not because it is blissfully unaware – plenty of unhappiness ensues, from terminal illnesses to broken families and death, unrequitedness and the impossibility of teenage normalness – but because it breaks past all of these with a sense that none are alone and the world isn’t worth giving up on just because your life is looking bleak.
I’d like for people to get this idea from my own writing. Honestly, if ever there is a Best of John Back collection where every single thing was fundamentally flawed in a perfectly appreciated, all-the-better-for-it kind of way, I’d well and truly die from pride. This is, I think, my most simple and most important conception of life so far: enduring optimism.

I’m not sure if the author intended this to be quite so prevalent as I have taken it to be. Some readers will find heartbreak and intense, lonely pain and they won’t see any of what I’m talking about. But I think this is because we are conditioned to want pain, to search for it unrelentingly to remind us that feelings are human, that we’re allowed to be downtrodden even if we need a sad story and broken characters to get us there. I’m not saying to fall apart immediately and irreparably if something goes wrong, I just wish we could celebrate sadness like we do happiness. Anyway!

Regardless of whether Bowe wished for this or not, for me I found the most joy in the fact that something prevailingly uplifting was published in a (let’s face it) fairly passively-aggressive pessimist’s playground. It gives me hope that there is a market for that which is not degrading, depressing or intrinsically critical of everything human. Maybe this is simply because the author was a mere 15 years old at the time of writing (which I still don’t fully believe) and had not been made brazenly agitated by humanity yet. And something I honestly believe is that the major strength of this GSB lies in the age of its author: that excluding the characters who are rife with multi-tragic pasts and the plot which moves in terrific speed, this novel is wonderfully simple. Not in a negative sense. Not from being under-thought or hinderingly naive. Its simplicity stems from a childlike state, from an honest, non-embittered view of the world which most authors would (wrongly in my opinion) consider ‘unworthy’ of literary value.

I applaud Steph Bowe for this, though she may find it embarrassing now, being older and having seen more of the dark world. I wonder if sweetness is attainable once you reach a certain age, or is it something which will forever be stuck in the ‘wonder years’? Can we ever allow ourselves as thinking adults to stay simple, to accept anything for what it honestly could be? Or are we all too far gone for that? I’ll certainly be doing everything I can for it. I hope GSB’s author will be doing the same.