All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

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All the Bright Places is a devastating and heart-wrenching novel that gripped me from beginning to end. It’s a popular read and soon to be made into a film starring Dakota Fanning. I was on the waiting list at the library for this one for almost a month!

Theodore Finch and Violet Markey couldn’t be more different, but their paths cross when they both find themselves up on the bell tower ledge. Somehow their concern for each other ends up with first Violet, then Theodore being coaxed back to safety, and an unlikely friendship between them forms.

This is a novel for teenagers and adults alike. Niven gives us a valuable insight into the perspectives of teenagers and their experiences at school and at home. It’s easy to forget what it’s like being in high school, and even as a teenager you don’t always know what’s going on with the people around you. This month is Suicide awareness month and given that our protagonists meet on a ledge, I think their story is particularly relevant.

Theodore ‘Freak’ Finch is always thinking about death and the ways in which a person could end their life. He doesn’t know who he is or who he’s meant to be and his personality changes regularly in his search for identity and belonging. With Violet, he starts to finally feel like he can be himself.

Violet Markey is in mourning. Her older sister died a year earlier in a car accident, which she survived. It’s time to live again, but she’s not sure how. Finch partners with her for a school project that takes them on adventures exploring Indiana and step by step she is able to recover the parts of herself that she hadn’t been able to face. She stops counting down the days until school is over, and starts enjoying each one.

The friendship and romance that grows between Violet and Finch is beautiful and heartwarming. Their relationship gives Finch a reason to get up every day and Violet finds herself falling for Finch. The sad part is though, that despite all the happiness and fun they have together, Finch continues to struggle with dark thoughts. How can he let someone love him when he can’t promise he’ll be around for her forever?

I think that it’s important to be aware that All the Bright Places contains some serious and dark issues – especially depression, mental illness and suicide. Jennifer Niven writes an interesting note at the end of her novel in which she explains how suicide and the stigmas surrounding it have affected her and her family. Her voice on this issue is valid, insightful and poignant. All the Bright Places offers an opening point for people to talk about depression and suicide and mental issues and this is ultimately why I think everyone should read it or be aware of it as a text.

For me as a teacher, I found the scenes where Finch talks to his counsellor very interesting. You can see Finch doing everything he can to seem okay and hide his problems. All the teachers and students see him as this weird kid who causes trouble and gets into fights but so few people actually seem to care about him. When he doesn’t show up to school nobody seems to miss him. And I think that’s a reality for a lot of people. We need to be more aware of the people in our communities who need love and support, and proactive in letting them know we are there.

Niven does a superb job of showing the context of her characters both at home and at school. You can see the influence of parents on their children on siblings on each other. Finch’s mum barely looks after him and the burden falls to his older sister. His dad left them and clearly has mental health issues of his own, which generally result in anger and violence towards his children. On the other hand, Violet’s parents have a much more healthy relationship with their daughter, but put her under more pressure than they realise – especially after losing their first daughter. For Violet, the guilt of putting them through losing her too is one of the things that haunts her most about her experience on the ledge at the start of the novel.

So, there you are! I absolutely loved All the Bright Places, even though in a lot of ways it was a challenging read because of its heavy content. It’s also superbly written and narrated; I listened to the audio book version narrated by Kirby Heyborne and Ariadne Meyers, who are both fantastic. The book is being widely read at the moment and I hope that more and more people read it because I felt it offered such a valid and important perspective on life as a teenager and life as someone struggling with mental illness and suicidal thoughts.

Of course the film is scheduled to come out in 2017 so keep an eye out for trailers in the meantime! It means you have lots of time to read it before the film comes out!

My rating: 4/5 stars

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