My friends — including my partner-in-crime here, Eisha — have informed me that I tend to speak in hyperbole (which is oh-so phenomenally and just categorically untrue). But with my abuse of hyperbole aside, I have to say that Sonya Hartnett, one of my favorite writers, is brilliant. Really, people. Just flat-out brilliant. Her writing is precise, exacting. It’s economical yet truly evocative. The reason she has quite a few one-sentence paragraphs is ’cause she writes like this: “My mother’s world had contracted like a dying spider.” There. She nailed it. What else do you need?
Hartnett is a master of metaphor, as illustrated by the above excerpt from her latest Young Adult (YA) title, Surrender (Candlewick Press; First U.S. Edition, 2006). She so often brings two seemingly worlds-apart things together with her vivid metaphors — and expertly so — that I stop and re-read sentences and paragraphs and then just pause to soak it all in and to marvel at her writing talent (I respond the same way to Ann Patchett and Regina McBride, both writers for grown-ups). Hartnett’s prose teeters right on the edge of poetry.
And, speaking of grown-up writers, Hartnett — who hails from Australia — is one of those writers whose placement in the category of YA baffles many, as she easily crosses over into the adult category (for this reason, I’m categorizing this post into “Adult Fiction” and “Young Adult”). It’s truly all very fuzzy exactly where she belongs if we must have categories. In fact, I’d only recommend her “YA” titles to the most astute of teens who could handle her heavy themes and appreciate her dense characterizations of emotionally injured children, her forte.
In Surrender, we meet Anwell, the child of emotionally distant parents (and that’s putting it nicely), who is responsible for the event that labels his family kooky by the inhabitants of the small, country town where he lives (of course, I will not tell you what that is; I aim to be a spoiler-free reviewer). Another young boy, Finnegan, appears at Anwell’s fence one day; he is wild-eyed, almost savage, unkempt — he’s out-and-out feral. He mocks Anwell; eventually, though, they become friends. Their friendship is predicated upon the agreement that Finnegan — with his all-consuming access to every inch of the town and its hinterland, too — will act as the dark side. Finnegan will, essentially, perform acts of terror on the unknowing targets of Anwell’s anger and resentment — those school-mates who taunt him, those town members who deride him and his family, and anyone else that Anwell is the slightest bit perturbed with. They decide to be the reflection of one another — the yin and the yang. Surrender is the hound they share, loved fiercely by both boys.
As with Hartnett, though, nothing is simple. And here I will stop, lest I give away anything revealing about this gripping psychological thriller.
My one grouse-’n-grumble about Hartnett, though, is when she suddenly jumps into omniscient let-me-comment-on-childhood mode, which happens in a lot of her novels, such as here in 2002’s spectral and wonderful What the Birds See: “Adrian has never thought that what happened to him had been cruel — children inhabit an animalistic world and accept with grace its harsh rules.” A bit before that she tells the reader, “A child often lacks the experience to see immediately what he’s lost. It took a few days before it dawned on Adrian that school is a lonely ordeal for the child who lacks company.” While I would eagerly listen to Hartnett’s insightful take on childhood and its psychological ordeals, these commentaries that creep into her novels seem forced and out-of-place right smack dab in the middle of a riveting narrative. Hartnett doesn’t even need to tell us this; it’s all evident in her spot-on characterizations and gorgeous prose.
The word haunting is overused in book reviewing, don’t ya think? But Surrender really is. Hartnett usually messes with my sleep, and she really did it this time. As I neared the end of the novel but just had to go to bed, due to a wee young child’s needs, I was unequivocally (damn, there’s that hyperbole again) disturbed. I tossed. I turned. Thoughts of the novel, its all-consuming plot, and its shadowy mood were swirling in my mind. Really, I lost a lot of sleep that night. That’s a pretty powerful thing for an author to do to you.