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BOOK REVIEW: Release by Patrick Ness

BOOK REVIEW: Release by Patrick Ness

Walker Books
May 2017
Hardcover, $24.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Young Adult

7/10

A startling and tender novel about how to let yourself love and set yourself free by Patrick Ness, the twice Carnegie Medal-winning author of A Monster Calls. Today will change Adam Thorn’s life. Between his religious family, unpleasant boss and his ex-boyfriend, the bindings of his world are coming undone. And way across town, a ghost has risen from the lake. Is there time for Adam to find his release?

Patrick Ness’s next most recent novel, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, was one of the best young adult books I’ve read in a long time, and I even had a chat with him about it. Each of his books is easily distinguishable from the rest, and there’s no question that the man can write. But inevitably, every so often, he delivers a novel that hits a little less hard than his amazing standard.

As in The Rest of Us Just Live Here, the story told in Release alternates between a central narrative in a realistic setting and short bursts of something supernatural or “other”.

In the principal story, Adam is a gay teenager living in a heavily religious house and approaching the end of high-school. Throughout the course of the day that the story spans (doing chores, helping his parents, working, and getting ready for a farewell party that night), he is judged by his parents, sees his ex, has sex with his boyfriend, and gets a few unexpected surprises. We see the way he is treated by those who are supposed to love him no matter what, and we can’t help but root for him. We see his interactions in various relationships, and we’re given plenty of backstory by way of flashbacks.

It’s worth mentioning that there are several scenes here that, while not graphic, do make it very clear as to who is “on top” in certain situations, so this would not be suitable for younger teen readers.

In the accompanying story, a teenage girl from the year above Adam at school died a week ago in a cabin by the lake. Now, the ghost of the girl rises up from the water, but it’s not the girl’s ghost, not really… It’s some mysterious “Queen” from some other plane who felt drawn to the girl’s spirit. The Queen has forgotten much of her own story, and there’s a faun who follows her to try and remind her to return to their world before sundown, or else both worlds will be destroyed. Though we never do find out where she’s from, or why her failure to return would result in the end of the world, or why she was called to this girl’s spirit a week after the girl’s death.

Confused yet? Yeah, you’re not alone.

Patrick Ness himself has said that the first storyline is based somewhat on his own upbringing, as a gay teenager in a highly religious family, and that he also had this other idea of a ghost seeking revenge.

Both of these are good things, to be sure, and in the hands of Mr. Ness they could be gold. But its the combining of the two that made for a less than smooth read for this reviewer.

It felt as though, realising that his first storyline wasn’t long enough, Ness decided to throw this second idea into the mix, but he never does go too very deeply into the second storyline, and as such it’s hard to see how the two were paired in the first place. The two different paths do meet up, but not until the last few pages, and their meeting feels vague and contrived.

Which is such a shame. Because the first storyline is beautiful and heartbreaking and hopeful.

We see how people dismiss teenagers and their emotions…

He had loved Enzo. Loved him. And who cared if it was the love between a fifteen- and then a sixteen-year-old. Why did that make it any less? They were older than those two idiots in Romeo and Juliet. Why did everyone no longer a teenager automatically dismiss any feeling you had then? Who cared if he’d grow out of it? That didn’t make it any less true in those painful and euphoric days when it was happening. The truth was always now, even if you were young. Especially if you were young.
He had loved Enzo.

The way certain people see certain sexualities as wrong, embarrassing, and something to be “corrected”…

My Baby, she’d called him. For too long. For too many years. Until it stopped being a phrase of love and started to contain within it an iron weight of instruction. You will never be our equal, they seemed to be telling him, no matter how old you get. Especially when all his little friends growing up were girls. Especially when he never watched the Super Bowl but never missed the Oscars.Especially when he started to seem “a bit gay”.
She’d actually said that in front of him at a Wendy’s one Sunday night after church. “Do you think he might be a bit gay?” she’d asked across the table to his father, as fifteen-year-old Marty looked furiously into his chocolate Frosty and eleven-year-old Adam’s face stung as keenly as a slapped sunburn.

The way that rape culture combined with the dismissal of non-binary people can lead to a dangerous kind of reasoning…

“I’ll take the reduced hours,” Adam said, hating himself more with every word. “I’ll take a pay cut-”
Wade’s crotch-level hand made a motion against the khaki. “What else are you willing to take?”
And for a second, a second he would relive for years to come, Adam found himself considering it. Would it really be so bad? Wade didn’t look like someone who would ever take his time about anything, and if it was over quick, who would really be harmed…?
He would. The thought of Wade’s hands on his bare skin alone gave him gooseflesh, already felt like a violation, but if… If he deserved this. (Did he?) If Wade had spotted in him – as he obviously had – that corruption at his heart, that little piece of unfixable brokenness-
It’s not real love, Marty said.
We’re just messing around, Enzo said.
Maybe it was all true.
Maybe this is what happened to people like him.
(People like what?)

And friendship and understanding of the kind that is only possible when you’ve spent your childhood and many of your formative years with a person.

They’d just had life together. First kisses, last kisses, virginities lost, drinks tried, movies watched, classes shared, heartaches exchanged, world theories pontificated, gossip spread, uncontrollable laughter at nothing, polite dinners with respective families, mutual protection from bullies, gentle terrorizations of weak student teachers, early breakfasts every Friday before school at Denny’s. All the stuff that counted. All the stuff that made the cement that stuck them together.
They’d been kids together. They’d been young teens together. They were growing up into adults together. It had been long enough and consistent enough that they’d gone past all boundaries. If she needed him, she knew he’d be there, no questions asked, and he new she’d do the same. She was here now. They had their bulgogi. This is what a family was. Or should be.

This part of the story is open, and honest, and is bound to hit you right in the young adult nerve center. Unfortunately the second story really only served to muddy the waters for this reader.

BOOK REVIEW: Release by Patrick Ness

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