Holding up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

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Season Greetings

Published by Penguin, April 2016, 391 pages, £3.99

3.5 stars

This is another precious story from Jennifer Niven. I was a little apprehensive, because I saw some mixed reviews. If you were an avid worshipper of All the Bright Places (who wouldn’t be), you would also enjoy this, but it isn’t of the same calibre. We can all agree All the Bright Places is an incredibly special and powerful story. Holding up the Universe is just as endearing, but lighter. It will touch you, but won’t knock you out.

Again, Niven hands to us two stellar characters with moving problems. Libby is a girl who used to be ‘America’s Fattest Teen’ and had to be cut out of her house and hospitalized. After years of isolation and recovery, she returns to high school and tries to get her life back on track. When I say ‘recovery’, I don’t mean that she becomes sparkly thin and all is well. She has reached a size where most still call over-weight, but she is comfortable, has climbed over her eating disorder and doesn’t plan on losing anymore. She continued to surprise me. Her rock hard integrity and courage, the way she stands up for herself when the trolls inevitably descend, demands respect. She is a natural friend to the reader and at times I found myself laughing with her. Niven addresses all the dimensions of weight-shaming and bullying with clarity and taste. This is obviously someone who understands that moment when you are confronted with a dark irrational force of hate, or people who are just plain shitty.

Jack is a boy who seems to cruising through high school smoother than most. He’s popular, has the on-off girlfriend others fear, and is friends with the loud guys. He is fairly fetching, as fictional boys go. His fierce determination and confidence switching to tenderness at perfect moments echo Finch, but unfortunately doesn’t outshine him nor exist solidly on its own.

His story begins with trouble for making out with his girlfriend’s cousin. It was dark, he was drunk, he wasn’t ‘technically’ attached and ‘boys will be boys’ right? The problem is, he really could not recognise whether it was his girlfriend or not. Jack has face-blindness, a condition I never knew existed and feel so enlightened that Niven has introduced me to it. Realising what he had when he was younger, Jack has tried to live with it and put up a fake bravado. I wondered why he never wanted to share his problem, but then realised it came from a scarier, deeper rooted issue of mistrust and fear in his society:

Better to be the hunter than hunted.

Soon, Jack’s walls of survival begin to crumble, and a secret of his father’s threatens to shake the bonds even more. It is clear he is entirely alone until he runs into Libby. A cruel joke brings them crashing together, and finally he begins to let down his guard. The two connect in a satisfying way. Their relationship developed very quickly for those who hate frustrating teases, but I wish there was more of a crackling tension. Unfortunately, their romance falls a little flat at the end where the plot was in need of harsher conflict and a swoonier reunion.

But the way Niven writes is amazing – her prose is scattered with pockets of soul-affirming dreams and hopes, but also whirl-pools of endless darkness. This isn’t just a story about weight and cognitive disorder, it’s about alienation, trust and acceptance. We dance with the characters, struggle with them, and strive with them to achieve wholeness and enough strength to hold up a universe.

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