Author(s): Patrick Ness
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 4th May 2017
Genre(s): contemporary, supernatural
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Between his religious family, a deeply unpleasant boss, and unrequited love for his sort-of ex, Enzo, it seems as though Adam’s life is falling apart.
He has two people to keep him sane – his new boyfriend Linus and his best friend Angela – but over the course of a single day, old memories and new heartaches come crashing together, throwing his life into chaos. Meanwhile, lurking at the edges, something unearthly and unsettling is set on a collision course with Adam and his town. A day of confrontation and transformation will not be without sacrifice – yet in spite of everything he has to let go, Adam may also find freedom in release.
Patrick Ness – a man with his fingers in a number of metaphorical pies when it comes to writing and creating for young people – is clearly enjoying being YA fiction’s genre-hopping answer to Neil Gaiman. Even a short list of his pursuits includes two Carnegie medals, two movie deals, the top spot in writing and creating Doctor Who spin-off Class, a plethora of awards, near-innumerable newspaper inches, and a string of well-received books. His cherry-picking of projects has made itself clear in novels like More Than This, The Rest of Us Just Live Here and now an attempt to bring Virginia Woolf’s formidable Mrs Dalloway to a modern teenage audience.
Perhaps because of this freedom to choose projects that might never get off the ground in the hands of a newly signed writer, Release is a novel which basks in its own literariness. There are nods to Woolf everywhere, from the wholesale borrowing of structure or events to more subtle references which should please those who’ve read the original without becoming too unwieldy for those who haven’t. Judy Blume’s Forever is also said to have been an influence. The writing style itself echoes with familiar characters of Ness’ YA: predictable rhythm, unflashy description, serious tone, the occasional moment of light-heartedness, though it’s denser and more formal than usual.
For fans of Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera and The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, the core of Release is protagonist Adam’s struggle with identity and orientation in the face of small-town mindsets and his religious, intolerant parents, who subscribe to views even they know are out-dated. Confrontation of Adam’s experiences gives the novel emphatic dramatic weight. Ness navigates implicit repression, outright rejection and other difficult topics with consistent dexterity. He places the venom of Adam’s preacher father alongside the exhilaration of his relationship with Linus and the fearless acceptance of best friend Angela – one of the best and most underrated characters in the book. Complicated characters litter the novel, with only the occasional flat note or slip into the one-dimensional among the secondary cast.
By turns bleak and busy, harsh and hopeful, Adam’s story is accompanied by a rather less effective supernatural sideplot. Essentially, a so-called queen, a faun, a murder, drug abuse and unanswered questions get turned into the kind of eerie-mystery-possibly-a-ghost-story. The reader is aware that it’s supposed to illuminate some deep and meaningful parallel to the contemporary plotline, but it’s so disparate I found it detracted from the more successful parts of the book. If you’re going to write contemporary magical realism, you’re better off really going for it, as in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys or Moira Fowley-Doyle’s spellbinding The Accident Season.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but perhaps more fitting here is Oscar Wilde’s variation on the phrase: “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” Because while Release is solid, it’s not earth-shattering. In fact, the prose is sometimes, well, boring. I’m not sure that an attempted reworking of one of Virginia Woolf’s most complex books by a middle-aged white dude was something YA needed. Adam’s navigating of relationships, identity and sexual orientation sits firmly in the tradition of foregrounding the G in LGBT in teen fiction, while elements of the book designed to make it seem unique – reinterpretation of a classic, a supernatural undercurrent – don’t mesh the way they should. A Monster Calls remains Ness’ best work.
An ambitious offering from the ever-versatile Patrick Ness, who is clearly punching for the literary side of critical acclaim with this Mrs Dalloway-inspired novel. Unfortunately, a misjudged supernatural subplot and prose that dulls more than it shines leave this effort curiously askew.