TW: parental abuse, underlying theme of depression and suicide, threatening internet trolling
I wonder – if nobody is listening to my voice, am I making any sound at all?
How do you talk about a book that starts with this sentence in it’s first chapter? It’s such a realistic portrayal of the struggles of teenagers who are expected to make decisions that would affect their future for a long time while also trying to be good students, satisfy parents, make friends and party and be cool. It made me remember parts of my own life that I had forgotten or haven’t thought about in a long time.
The idea that I might go down a grade because I physically could not find an explanation of a particular topic made me feel like stabbing myself.
Frances is a British-Ethiopian bisexual girl who is always top of her class, head girl at school and puts up an introverted, boring facade for her classmates. But at home, she is a huge nerd who loves wearing quirky clothes (I dig her avengers leggings) and is obsessed with doing fanart for her favorite Youtube podcast Universe City. She almost gets panic attacks about the possibility of not getting into Cambridge because she has worked very hard towards that single goal. She believes it’s her only possible option because she is not good at anything except getting good grades. I just felt transported to my high school days whenever she has these inner monologues because that’s exactly how I was. She is an artist but doesn’t think a hobby can be a choice for college or career but I never even had that side to me. I was only a good student, hardly had any social life except sometimes, singing in a group at school events. Reading was probably my only hobby but I couldn’t afford English novels and mostly read whatever spiritual books I found at home. So, getting into the head of Frances, reading about all her anxieties, felt so real and nostalgic.
I was just thinking the other day… about the fact that I never speak to myself out loud. And I thought maybe that was normal, but then I wondered whether that was actually really strange. Sometimes I think if nobody spoke to me, I’d never speak again.
I don’t even know how to describe Aled. He is just so shy and sweet and soft and I wanted to wrap him up and protect him. He is smart, gets exceptional grades, has gotten into University but his real passion is his podcast. It’s probably the one thing he cares about the most because it’s something he has done for himself, to express his pain and despair through stories, and also hopefully as a plea to his twin sister Carys who ran away from home a couple of years ago. He suffers from a lot of anxiety (possibly depression) and doesn’t believe he truly deserves all the love he gets from his closest friends. And instead of talking to them, he feels that they would hate him if he tried to explain his behavior and distances himself from everyone and goes into a spiral.
I couldn’t quite believe how much I seriously loved Aled Last, even if it wasn’t in the ideal way that would make it socially acceptable for us to live together until we die.
The best part of this book are the friendships of all kind. Frances and Aled bond over their clothing choices, music and TV shows and mostly about their love for art. Their midnight revisions for exams, snacking at odd times, lying on the floor and planning the podcast – all of these scenes are written beautifully and why they quickly became such great friends is so evident. I absolutely love the idea of platonic soulmates and I really believe you can love someone a lot, feel that they complete you and not feel attracted to them. We get to read so few books about the joys of such friendships, that this one just warmed my heart. The heartbreak that you feel when you lose such close friends is depicted so realistically and definitely connected to me a lot.
“He’s my only real friend,” he said. “And he just left me here. I just miss him… not even getting with him, just… being with him… him sleeping round my house… playing video games… I just want to hear his voice… I want him to tell me the truth…”
The diverse representation in this book is done in such a way that the character’s identity feels like one part of them and not something that defines their personality. Daniel is a gay Korean boy who is Aled’s childhood best friend/ love interest and he cares about Aled so much that it made me sob. Even after Aled distances himself from all of them, Daniel is still ready to show up when he believes Aled needs him. There is an amazing conversation between them about Aled’s demisexual identity and how his behavior sometimes might be perceived as him not having genuine feelings for Daniel and how defining himself with a label doesn’t really matter because his feelings are not dependent on it. Raine is another wonderful friend of theirs who happens to be Indian. She is resigned to the fact that she is not good at studies and might not go to University but she is also not very pessimistic about her future. She is confident, perceptive and a great support system for her friends.
The way different kinds of parents are represented in this book is also amazing. On the one hand, we have France’s mom who is hilarious, supportive, never pressures her daughter to do anything she doesn’t want to and is always ready to help the kids in their naughty plans (atleast the reasonable ones). Daniel’s parents don’t value education much and want him to join the family business while his dream is to study biology at Cambridge. The other extreme is Aled’s mom who is very abusive, believes that academic excellence is the only available choice and uses all kinds of manipulative methods to bend Aled to her will.
“Why do you think I’m clever?” “I mean, grades. You get good grades. What’s that like?” “It’s… not that special. t’s useful, I guess. Useful.”
Though we all have all these excellent characters, what stood out for me in this book are the underlying messages. Everyone should be able to feel lost and make their own way to discover themselves. It’s not how the real world unfortunately works but it would be so wonderful if just grades or the rank of the college or the major you choose don’t determine your entire future. Once you make a choice, you are expected to continue on that path forever even if that’s not what you want to do anymore. I really wish that all youngsters are given the time and tools to decide their future based on what they want to do as opposed to what’s expected of them by parents or society.
“What if people don’t like it?” he said, his voice only just audible. “They’re all expecting something brilliant from me.” “It doesn’t matter,” I said. “It’s your show. If you like it, then it is brilliant.”
The depiction of the toxic culture of internet fandom is also very realistic here and I think everyone who extensively uses social media will find it very relatable. And it also raises a lot of questions that we should all ponder. If you are a creator whose art affects thousands of people, does your art still belong to you or your fans? Social media has brought the creator closer to their fans but does it mean that the creators lose their right to anonymity and privacy? Is it right for fans to stalk, intrude and disrupt the lives of artists just because they support the art? How can fans who purportedly love the art which has given them so much joy, go ahead and abuse and threaten the artist when they are unable to create anymore? If it’s an artist’s responsibility to create and satisfy their fans, then isn’t it the responsibility of the fans to respect the artist’s choices? These are all things we grapple with everyday, and we as a society really need to find better ways to deal with the toxicity that is all pervasive across the internet.
I have probably gone on a whole other tangent instead of talking about this book, but I just had to express all my tumultuous feelings. This book is a definite must read for everyone but I think it is specifically a wonderful book to read for teenagers who are feeling confused and lost; for parents who want to understand their kid’s anxieties better and be supportive; and this book is also especially for people like me who value friendships a lot in life.