Monday, 30 July 2018

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Mental Illness in YA Month Review: All the Ways the World Can End by Abby Sher

All the Ways the World Can End by Abby SherAll the Ways the World Can End by Abby Sher (Review Copy) - Lenny is preparing for the apocalypse. Every night, she researches vacuum decay, designer pathogens, that inexplicable sleeping sickness knocking people out in Kazakhstan. Not many sixteen-year-olds are this consumed with the end of the world. But Lenny needs to have some sense of control. Her dad is dying of cancer. Her best friend Julian is graduating early and moving three states away. She's having to rehearse for a toe-curling interpretive dance show at school, and deal with her mum's indefatigable jolliness and smoothie-making in the face of the disaster they are confronting. The one thing keeping her hopeful is Dr Rad Ganesh - her father's oncologist. Surely Lenny can win him round to her charms - and he can save her father? From Goodreads.

Trigger Warning: This book features self-harm, homophobic language (overheard on a train), and the protagonist using ableist language.

All the Ways the World Can End by Abby Sher, an #OwnVoices novel about a Jewish girl with OCD, is not the book I thought it would be. I assumed it was going to be a light, silly read, what with Lenny's interest in how the world could end, the interpretive dance show, and fancying her dad's doctor. I was expecting a lot of eye-rolling and exasperation. I wasn't expecting this book to make me laugh out loud and cry because I was heartbroken.

Lenny has always been very close to her dad, but now he has bowel cancer, and it's really not looking good. But his oncologist, the gorgeous, friendly, easy-going Dr. Ganesh, thinks he's a suitable candidate for a drug trial that could make all the difference. Lenny is a little bit in love with him, and puts all her hopes in his hands. There's nothing she can do about her dad's cancer, so she reaches for a sense of control; she researches everything she can on the drug trial, until she has has everything memorised. And there's also her obsession with the ways the world can end or the human race could be wiped out - an obsession she's had since before her dad fell ill, but one she clings to now. But as her dad gets worse, and she finds out her best friend is graduating early and leaving, the bottom falls out of her world, and her obsessions and compulsions become the only thing keeping her going.

I had a much more personal reaction to All the Ways the World Can End than I expected to. Although I don't have OCD like Lenny does, I do have anxiety, and my Nan died of cancer three years ago, and I really related to how she was feeling, and how she was affected by her mental illness, when the news about her father just seemed to get worse and worse. There's no real plot to the story, it's more of a snap shot of the time in Lenny's life where everything changes; when her dad's cancer gets worse, and how that affects her. Lenny's OCD affects her in different ways; she likes things to be clean, and when she gets some particularly bad news, she spends the conversation cleaning the hospital room her dad's in with alcohol wipes, and the fruit bowl in the sink over and over. She washes her hands a number of times, and find relief in the sting when her hands are red raw. She also counts and does maths; tidying up her dad's books into groups of three, using putting dates into formula to get an answer that means something to her, is a sign. And she also self-harms. When the thoughts get too much and she can't escape them, she punches herself in the head really hard, hurting her hands as well as putting herself in a fog-like daze from all the punching. And again, she hits herself in groups of 50, but having a target she has to reach.
'Pounding was my favorite obsession, or maybe it was a compulsion. All I knew for sure was that each blow to my head was sharp and clear and rocked me completely out of my circuit of anxiety. When I pummeled myself in the head, all I could think about was the darkness and pain.pain that I gave to
me.' (p134)Then there are Lenny obsessions. She is unable to not research deadly viruses, natural disasters such an volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, the possibility of Earth being destroyed due to things happening in space. She has to know. It scares the crap out of her, especially the things she's unable to prepare for, but she has to know, and she has to know everything about it. Before the start of every chapter, we have a page written by Lenny - white text on a black background - showing us one of the many ways the world can end, and they are actually quite terrifying. I kept thinking, "I don't actually want to know all this!" She also has herself a bunker she's put together in her dad's tool shed, filled with cans of tinned food and space blankets, and all other things she thinks she'll need. As her life progressively gets worse, the more she spends on getting things for her bunker, on her emergency credit card that she knows her mum will freak out about, but she needs this stuff. It really is hard to watch as Lenny gets more and more out of control, while trying to control something. It's so hard, and knowing exactly how she was feeling made it harder, because I got it. Seeing her mental health spiral, understanding her lack of control, and not being able to hold onto anything solid as everything she knows is torn away from her was so upsetting. My heart broke for her over and over again.

Yet saying all this, All the Ways the World Can End isn't actually a terribly heavy book. I mean, yes, her dad has cancer and is dying, and she's struggling with her mental illness, but it's also really, really funny. I loved Lenny's voice, and how, even in the midst of everything going wrong, she was able to have a thought, or react to someone else's idiocy in a way that was just so, so funny. There was also how she and her best friend, Julian, created a life story for a lobster in a tank at their favourite diner, how he was called Don Juan Crustaceo, he was a ladies man with an Italian accent, who kept hitting on the female customers, and they'd make up dialogue for him, and it was just so funny.

And her dad! Oh my god, her dad is brilliant! He's bloody hilarious! He's so witty and has brilliant comic timing. He's in hospital with cancer, lying in his hospital bed, and everything is dire, and they would be having these somber conversations, and he'd just come out with something that would absolutely crack me up. I'd be on the bus or in the staff room, and I would literally laugh out loud. He was just wonderful, and I loved him. I also loved Lenny's mum, too. Lenny found her annoying and an embarrassment, and I got it, what with her researching ways to cure cancer that don't involve medicine and constantly changing their diet and so on. It was how she was coping with something she couldn't control, and I got it. But she was also so lovely. She was chirpy and cheery and optimistic, and it didn't seem, fake, you know? It wasn't like she was putting on a brave face, that's just who she was. I mean, she did have her moments where she was uncontrollably upset, but in general, she's just a happy, smiley person who genuinely loves her family, and mate, she was just so lovely. And funny herself in her cheeriness.

Lenny has a great relationship with her best friend, Julian, and it was just wonderful to see a best-friendship between two people of the opposite genders. They genuinely cared about each other, and Julian genuinely cared about Lenny's family. Her dad's cancer affected him, too, and he was almost like another member of the family, and would help out in anyway he could. He was a sweetheart. Mate, I just pretty much loved all the characters in this book!

There's just one thing I want to touch on quickly, and that's how Lenny's dad was coping. We need to remember that Lenny is 16, she's not an adult, and Lenny's dad is still her dad even if he has cancer and may very likely die. And we see him continue to parent her, to be her dad, to try and reassure her, to protect her and love her while this terrible thing is tearing through their family, and he's going to die, yet he still wants to make sure his little girl is going to be ok. Their relationship was just gold, and how he's still trying to look after when he can't even walk unaided, it broke my heart, it really did. Can you imagine? Knowing you're going to die, being terrified and angry and god knows what else, but still trying to be there to comfort and look after your daughter? Tears, god, there were so many tears. I just couldn't handle this heartbreaking situation, and remembering the conversations I had with my Nan before she died. Man, this book just really, really got to me. It's so, so beautiful.

There are a couple of issues I have with the book, though, and that's down to some of the language used. There's a scene where Lenny is on the train at night, and there are some older, drunk boys playing 'would you rather', and a homophobic word meaning lesbian is used, and it was just so unnecessary, you know? She's on the train heading home, and these stupid guys are being annoying and loud, but they didn't need to use that word. They're not even an important part of the book, they're just there. They could have said something else. And sure, it might be realistic for stupid, drunk boys to say stupid things, but it wasn't needed! And considering Julian is gay, I would have thought Lenny would have been unimpressed by their homophobic language, but she doesn't react at all. And there's another time when Lenny got too excited internally about brushing arms with someone, and describes herself as the "Empress of Spazland," (p286) and it just wasn't needed! And she's thinking it, not said out loud, so it's not challenged or anything. IT just bothered me that there were these two instances of offensive language, and there really wasn't any need for it (by which I mean in some books, in some situations, language like this can be used when someone is experiencing homophobic or ableist bullying, but those situations always make it clear that it is not ok!).

Otherwise, All the Ways the World Can End is such an incredible novel. It's so funny, and so emotional! It broke my heart and it made me laugh out loud. It's such a beautiful, poignant story, and if you can deal with those two instances where offensive language is used, I'd really recommend it.

Thank you to Hot Key Books for the review copy.

Mental Illness in YA Month

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Published: 27th July 2018
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Abby Sher's Website

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