I’ve been on a long hiatus from blogging, but I’ve finally found a novel to kick (start) me out of the slump–Chasing Shadows, by Swati Avasthi. The book was published in 2013, and sat unread on my shelf for 2 years while I was busy devouring a baker’s dozen of The Ranger’s Apprentice, moving house, juicing (NO), running (MAYBE), getting fitted for reading glasses (old age sucks) and so on.
Chasing Shadows is a YA novel dealing with death and mental illness, so if you are a young Young Adult, proceed with caution. There, can’t sue me now.
It’s the last year of high school in Chicago for Savitri and twins Corey and Holly, long-time friends who are tighter than family. Savitri is Corey’s girlfriend and Holly’s BFF–an equilateral triangle of friendship, see? They’re endlessly loyal, preternaturally aware of each other’s needs and boundaries, and they have their future planned together for college in Chicago. Savitri is smart and sensible and articulate, while edgy intense Holly has a passion for graphic novels featuring female superheros saving the world. And Corey…well, Corey is murdered on page 10, in a maybe-random shooting at a traffic light.
Holly, seriously injured in the shooting, is unconscious in hospital–and finds herself in a netherworld with Corey, bargaining with the half-snake overlord of death for her brother’s life. Savitri, unhurt, feels the guilt “like stones” as she keeps vigil by Holly’s side. When Holly emerges from her coma, she’s focussed on tracking down Corey’s killer, and Savitri must make some hard choices–help her friend in a dangerous, unhinged quest, or abandon her when she most needs support.
This is a beautifully layered book that impresses on so many levels–the thoughtful arrangement of Craig Phillips’s graphics (in Holly’s view) with the written word, for instance, and the careful connections made while fleshing out of the characters’ families and backgrounds–Holly’s father is a cop, while Savitri’s father abandoned the family. I was particularly struck by the cross-referencing of Holly’s fantastical netherworld with the Hindu myth of Savitri’s namesake, who was known for her piety, wit and devotion to her husband; when Savitri’s husband dies, she follows Yama, the god of the underworld and bargains (successfully) for her husband’s life. When Holly loses the will and ability to deal with the outside world, it’s stories that provide her a language she understands, and a narrative that feeds her needs. Stories offer comfort and healing in a time of grief, but as with all powerful objects, the story can be dangerous. (That’s why people try to ban them, eh?)
I really admire how Avasthi juggles so many elements without the narrative sinking under its own emotional weight. There is a lot going on here, what with two narrators, the graphics, the myths, the superhero graphic novel inspiring Holly, Savitri’s racial identity, the whodunnit angle of the shooting, the exploration of the trauma caused by violence and subsequent recovery–and it’s all topped with a boatload of teenage angst. But Avasthi has some seriously powerful, disciplined prose that keeps this book not just afloat but triumphantly aloft; at the end, Chasing Shadows stands as both tribute and testament to the power of a good story. Read this!