Liesl, like many others, barely remembers the sun. Unlike many others, Liesl barely remembers what it feels like to be out of the attic, where her stepmother has locked her for months beyond counting. Every night, she sits up in the window with a bare lamp and draws and dreams. Then she meets Po and Bundle, a ghost and its sort-of-pet from the Other Side, and finds the first company she’s had since her father got sick.
Will does remember the orphanage, as well as the crippling, killing mine labor the boys get sent to if they’re not adopted; some days he’s not sure that isn’t preferable to being adopted by the cruel, slave-driving alchemist. Always cold and hungry, answering to endless variations of Useless rather than his name, the one bright point in his life is stopping by a house and watching a girl sit in a halo of light at the attic window.
What brings them together is a mistaken delivery, a message from the Other Side, a hope of magic and rest, of murder and good intentions, of running away and maybe, if you’re lucky, finding home.
In her note to the reader that fronts the book (or at least fronts it in the ARC; its position in the final text may differ), Lauren Oliver reveals that this book is extremely personal for her, a confession and a journey from her own experience with the death of a loved one. It shows. In every page, in nearly every sentence, that journey shows through, but don’t mistake this for a book about grieving, or even about facing death and moving on. Through its utter simplicity, it is far, far more complex than that.
This is a book without a time or place. It’s definitely in our world- there’s a passing reference to New York City, and to countries with which we’re familiar- but it’s not really stationed in one place or another. I’ll admit that, for me, the book had a very English feel, but that’s also because the setting and the manners and the voice all came together to create a sort of dreary Victorian feel. There are trains and carriages and alchemists, and certainly the illustrations (though not yet final in the ARC) add to that impression with the style of clothing worn by the characters, but it’s not pinned solely to that era, and it’s never pinned down to a specific country either. Its cities are Dirge and Gainsville and Cloverstown, cities of smoke and fire and grey skies where the sun hasn’t shone in 1,728 days. It’s part of our world and yet somehow outside of it as well, floating outside of a precise time in a way that makes it quite timeless.
The voice contributes to that timelessness in a significant way. At first, it seems to teeter a bit. There’s a difference in voice between Young Adult and Middle Grade, and authors who go between the two, especially on their first trip to the other side, can have a hard time finding that voice. Sometimes it came off a little too YA (please don’t ask me to explain that, we could be here all day and I still wouldn’t feel like I’d done an adequate job), sometimes it came off as squarely MG, but- and these were my favorite moments, and increasingly the norm as the book progressed- sometimes it came across as an old-fashioned Victorian fairy tale that speaks directly to the reader with bits and pieces of a lesson or something a character “might have seen” if they weren’t rushing past. It’s a difficult voice to capture well and it took a few chapters, but once it founds its niche, it flourished.
This book is an exquisite display of balance in so many ways. Its characters are a careful balance of sympathetic and horrible, its tone is a balance of darkness and beauty, and even the tug and swirl of locations are balanced between Living Side and Other Side. There’s a high degree of slapstick in the story, especially when it comes to chance meetings and intersections and coincidences, but it all comes neatly together so that, while incredibly funny, it never feels contrived, but the slapstick weighs into a story that, all things told, is fairly dark. The slapstick keeps it lighter for the younger readers, but through all of it, there’s a very fragile thread of hope that stretches up towards the missing sun, just as Will stands on the street and basks in the sight of Liesl’s face in the lamp at the attic window.
Liesl is an amazing little girl, strong in ways she hasn’t understood yet- and even still doesn’t understand fully when the book is done- but her perspective on things is simultaneously world-weary and simplistically trusting. She has a child’s lack of patience with things she sees as unimportant or generally accepted, can be thoughtlessly offensive and not over-apologetic about it even if she later realizes it, but she has a boundless imagination and deeply rooted love that overwrite all the rest of her character. She’s a child who has been cruelly treated but it’s neither broken her nor left her cruel in turn. Her friendship with Po and Bundle is that of a child- nearly instantaneous, not particularly graceful at times, but cherished and strong enough to survive misunderstandings and small offenses.
Po is rather more complicated. It can’t remember the name it was born with- it died a very long time ago, and things get rather blurry on the Other Side- nor can it remember whether it was a boy or girl. Whenever I saw the name I thought of Edgar Allen Poe and loved it a little bit more. Po is the strangest blend of a child’s limitless curiosity and the bone-deep weariness that comes from having been dead for so very long. It doesn’t really understand the Living Side anymore, finds it exhausting, and yet it finds itself drawn to Liesl for reasons it can’t understand. Bundle, a blurred hybrid somewhere between a cat and a dog, is just plain adorable. I wants one.
The adult characters are more types than individuals, but just as in a fairy tale, it’s put to incredibly good use here. The Lady Premiere is mysterious and terrifying, with a heavily veiled past; the stepmother (Augusta Varice- A. Varice, I LOVE IT) is cruel and simpering in turns; the alchemist is greedy, grasping, firmly convinced of his own superiority; the old lady with the cane and the cat allergy cracks me up; and then there’s Mo. I love Mo. He is such an amazing man and in a sense of both his innate goodness and his mental status, I’d probably rank him with the children. He isn’t very smart, no (Mo is short for Molasses, as in slow as or thick as molasses) but his kindness is bone-deep. He doesn’t always do things the right way, and sometimes it causes trouble for himself or others, but his intentions are so good it actually makes your heart ache.
Laced through the Victorian fairy-tale quality of the voice comes some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever seen. Any time spent within the Other Side is gorgeously conveyed, and there were some sentences that had me scrambling for a pen and paper so I could copy them down and go over them at my leisure because I didn’t want to pull myself away from the story long enough to do them full justice. At its heart, this is a story of hope and of not being alone. Liesl is alone in the attic, Will is alone with the alchemist or on the streets, Po and Bundle are alone on the Other Side, and home is a sort of nebulous thing for them both. Only Liesl’s father had a strong sense of home and the driving need to return there, and his sense infects Liesl with a deep longing for the place she used to know as home but can barely remember. The most beautiful moments in this book are realizations that tie around loneliness and belonging, where home is a magic- and at times mythical- concept.
“People need other people to feel things for them. It gets lonely to feel things all by yourself.”
“She understood then, too, that everyone drowns differently, and that for everyone- even ghosts- there is a different kind of air.”
“She belonged to the world but the world did not belong to her; seh was only the smallest, sprouting part of it”
I could meditate on those sentiments for hours, perhaps even days, and still feel I hadn’t explored them fully.
Skirting around a few things that happen too near the end of the book to include in a review, there were so many moments in this book to love, even within a story that I enjoyed and savored from start to finish. I look forward to seeing the finalized artwork in the published version- they have almost a sketch quality that uniquely suits not only Liesl’s drawing abilities but also the unending grey of the sunless world and the nature of Po and Bundle and the Other Side.
Liesl has a love for the word ineffable, a word her father taught her that he explains as a feeling so big or vast that it could not be expressed in words, and yet they came up with a word to express it anyway. The word comforts her, calms her when she’s upset, reminds her of her father and happier times. From start to finish, through the darkest times and the worst fears and the most slapstick ridiculosity, this is a story of beauty and ineffable hope.
Liesl & Po, by Lauren Oliver, out in stores 4 October 2011.
Want to get your hands on a copy early? I got an extra ARC, and I am giving it away! Check out my Cover Love post for a dissection of the cover and for giveaway details- giveaway runs through Saturday August 27th.
Until next time~