The last book I remember reading that induced tears like this was Malorie
Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses. But where Noughts and Crosses leaves you in a broken heap until the next book, Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places battles through the hurt to show the slow light that can come after.
“Is today a good day to die?”
This is the first line of the book and what reader can skip over such a line? It is so much bigger than the short question it appears: not just someone contemplating death, but contemplating a choice over death and a judgement of its quality and suitability.
It is the question that plagues Theodore Finch constantly and yet something always stops him from acting on it. He is fascinated by the immensity and the mystery of the world around him: black holes, stars, blue holes – and the beautiful girl that smiles at him with her eyes as well as her mouth.
“And in that moment there’s nothing I fear except losing hold of her hand.”
Following the death of her sister, Violet Markey loses all sense of who she is. Once a popular and inspired student who’s life was filled with extracurricular activities, writing a web-magazine and on a pathway to college in NYC, now she lives only to cross off the days to graduation. Once that day comes she can leave behind the life that is not hers without Eleanor by her side.
Until Finch shows her the beauty that must be there if everyone else sees it, and shows her it is possible to have a perfect day.
“I’d like to live in a world designed by Theodore Finch.”
They meet at the ledge of the school bell tower, both contemplating the end and both scared of what would come next. This sparks a journey for both of them, wandering the beautiful places of Indiana and trying to save each other.
Finch has some magic about him that brings Violet back to the world of the living. As a boy he confessed the thoughts that danced around his head and has since been labelled a freak, an outcast. He has grown up as several versions of himself, shifting between ’80s Finch’, ‘Badass Finch’ and ‘Nerd Finch’ to name a few. He is both uncomfortable in his skin and restless to experience different lives, painfully aware of his status as outcast and goading to those who judge him.
Their love is necessarily slow to flourish: they are from different worlds, they are both young, and they are both damaged. Because when Finch is not eccentrically running around, he crawls into darkness, a sleep, that he can’t control.
Niven writes poetically of the mysteries of young love,
adventure and grief,
growing a complex romance through a love of language. Beginning with shared quotes from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Violet and Finch build their adventures around rescuing the positive words and getting ideas out on post its.
The Waves is significant both in its lyrical mapping of their relationship and the strong parallels it evokes between Finch and Woolf’s own struggles with bipolar disorder.
Although I felt Violet was at times an unconvincing character, I wonder whether it was Niven’s intention to create her as a slightly vague and irritating relief to Finch. Throughout the narrative, as Finch begins to shut off his communication altogether, Violet rediscovers the writer in her that she thought had died with Eleanor.
In All the Bright Places, the romance is actually the secondary theme. What Niven delivers with exquisite and wrenching skill is the grip of mental illness. I have never read a character that demonstrates such a turmoil of thoughts and complex impulses with such clarity. The reader is both confused by the darkness and inconsistency in Finch’s mind, but is also drawn into the way he picks things apart. He feels everything with great intensity and the idea of death is not just an impulse but a study – full of facts, history and a larger idea of our place in the world.
Most importantly, Niven shows us an after.