(Book Review) Solo by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess

By Katy Goodwin-Bates

Writing a YA verse novel seems to me a risky strategy, given that the one thing guaranteed to make my teenage students claim a total lack of comprehension is poetry. It also needs to not just be a spurious exercise in authorial grandstanding; there needs to be a believable reason for the novel to written in verse rather than prose. On the other hand, a verse novel is inevitably shorter than a traditionally written one, which means it will only take a third of the time to read, which might prove a happy compromise with those reluctant readers. I will be forcing Solo in front of my teenage students to see how this plays out.

In terms of the first of these potential stumbling blocks, protagonist Blade Morrison’s story lends itself to the verse novel on the basis of him being an aspiring songwriter and son of Rutherford Morrison, legendary rock star, alcoholic and not particularly impressive parent. Aside from his father’s mortifying antics, Blade still mourns the death of his mother some years before (because no teen in YA is allowed to have both parents still living) and grapples with his father’s ability to create carnage in more ways than one when Blade’s girlfriend comes under pressure to break up with him based on a strongly held parental belief in that old adage, “like father, like son.”

Rutherford may not have much time left, before
he falls flat on 12:00. Midnight can be so cruel.

Who doesn’t feel sorry for his kids
left answering the hard questions, like
How does it feel
to be the daughter
to be the son
of a fallen rock star?

Solo splits clearly into sections, like the songs Blade writes break into verse, bridge and chorus. The first part, set in L.A. sees Blade graduating, via yet another humiliating appearance from Rutherford, while the mid-section is rocked by a revelation that calls Blade to question everything he previously believed about his family. The final act, somewhat incongruously, takes Blade to Ghana, a location he may have thought would be safe from his father’s antics, but guess what? For a novel in this form, it’s quite long, but these seismic shifts in action and location serve to maintain the reader’s interest.

The poetic style is simple; the vocabulary is certainly accessible to the intended teenage audience, although I sometimes yearned for something a little more nuanced. Solo is one of two verse novels I’ve read in recent weeks and the other, Mr Either/Or by Aaron Poochigian, features a more free-wheeling, complex style, which was slightly more to my taste. That said, Solo is a YA novel, and so that level of lyrical virtuosity would perhaps be out of place.

Ever heard
the sound
of goodbye? The way a door closes.
The way a deer looks.
The way a busted bird sings.
The ending of the world.
The wailing of
a hollowed heart.

Made up of a series of short poems rather than one long narrative, Solo is further broken up with a few different themes and purposes to the poems – Blade’s first person narrative makes up the majority, but with interspersed text message conversations, as well as Blade’s song lyrics and commentaries on the greatest guitar songs of all time. It is the last of these which set the book most clearly in a real-life musical context, and I was amused by the contrast between the tremendous originality of Solo‘s style and plot and the – let’s the kind – pedestrian rock classics discussed; I might be prepared to admit that With or Without You is U2’s best song (not that great a compliment, in fairness) but it’s probably not that frequently mentioned in young adult novels in 2017. I liked the idea that Blade was rebelling against his classic rock roots with something more progressive; it’s the kind of teen revolution not often covered in this genre, and represents a refreshing change.

I enjoyed this teen spin on the ageing rock star narrative; it’s Blade’s story, but, as in life, he’s frequently overshadowed by his larger-than-life parent on the page. Blade himself can be a little frustrating; aside from anything else, I think most people would doubt the pure devotion of a girlfriend whose main contribution to your day is to ask to be taken shopping on Rodeo Drive. We all make mistakes though, so I’ll let Blade off. Alexander and Hess have entirely vindicated the writing of this as a verse novel; the poetry elevates what might otherwise have been a rather less memorable story, and the combination of both conventional and extraordinary events, along with the original style, make this a really interesting read.

2 comments

  1. I would love to have Katy Goodwin-Bates post a follow-up essay about her students reaction to reading a verse novel after she “forces” Solo in front of the teenagers she is mentoring. I find the form intriguing and hope Solo and Mr. Either/Or find an enthusiastic audience since both creations are in the service of poetry, which has become the ugly step-child of literature today. As someone who has written a screenplay about a rock star, I am aware how difficult it is to not play the sound-alike song of aspirant drumming a dream, crescendoing to success, rocking to selfish indulgence, and ending with a discordant guitar chord. It very much appeals to me that Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess have shaped a story from the perspective of the rock star’s son. It gives a fresh approach towards hearing the ramifications of the father’s fame and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. By the way, recently I saw a dvd of a film which incorporated poetry into its framework. The movie is called Paterson and I thought it was one of the most beautiful movies made in this 21st century… but then I am the type who prefers the company of ugly step-children.

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