By Katy Goodwin-Bates
If you’re not familiar with the work of Patrick Ness, you should be; he’s something of a rock star in YA writing and his star will only continue to rise with the upcoming star-studded movie adaptation of his Chaos Walking trilogy. He’s also the author of The Rest of Us Just Live Here, one of my favourite YA novels of the past few years and a more obvious predecessor to his latest novel, Release; the two share a touching vulnerability and delicate strength that I have come to think of as distinctly Ness-ian.
Structurally clever, Release follows teenage Adam throughout an eventful day which encompasses family drama, romantic interludes and existential pondering. Interwoven with Adam’s earthly tribulations is a more otherworldly narrative, following the aftermath of the murder of a local girl. It’s an ambitious premise and one which succeeds largely as a result of Ness’ almost unbearably beautiful writing.
Because what if they were right? What if there was something wrong with him? What if, on some level, way down deep inside, right down to the very simplest, purified form of who he was, what if he was corrupted? What if there was some tiny, tiny fault in the first building blocks of who he was and everything since that first moment of life was just papering over an essential crack? And he was just a carapace built on a facade built on scaffolding and there was no real core to him, no real central worth? At all?
Can I love, he thought? Can I?
Can I be loved?
It’s impossible not to sympathise with Ness’ protagonist, Adam; unfairly overshadowed by his handsome brother in the eyes of their deeply religious parents, Adam is forced to hide his sexuality and, consequently, huge parts of his existence. As if that wasn’t enough, Adam’s best friend is moving away while his family’s financial problems force him to wonder whether he’ll ever be able to do the same. All this could add up to an overly melodramatic novel, but Ness is so adept at conveying personal crises and delicate emotional moments that Release never feels overloaded. Which is not to say that the book isn’t deeply contemplative and poignant: it is, and Adam’s emotional agony is almost unbearable at times, particularly in his dealings with his parents and the fear of their response to him being gay. Ness has spoken about Adam’s experiences as reflections of his own, with the section in which the character’s parents whispering about whether their son might be “a bit gay” coming directly from the author’s own youth. This personal element of the novel is evident throughout, and invests Adam’s story with even greater emotional import.
Artfully combining the creepiness of another of his previous novels, A Monster Calls, with the richly drawn emotional connections of The Rest of Us Just Live Here, Release is an intriguing melting pot of seemingly disparate elements. Ness has explained elsewhere that his inspirations for the novel were twofold, with the focus on Adam’s busy day taking its lead from Virgina Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, while the more intimate chapters concerning Adam’s private moments with his boyfriend are intended to provide gay teens with their own literary touchstone in the vein of Judy Blume’s Forever. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does. The links with Mrs Dalloway are rather lovely, with Adam’s errand of picking up flowers echoing a task performed by the eponymous character of Woolf’s work. I feel I ought to disclose that Forever mentally scarred me for life as a young teenager; how I managed to sneak it into the house past my vigilant mother remains a mystery, but Blume’s infamous depictions of teen sex were perhaps a little too explicit for my delicate little brain at the time. However, I’m older and (slightly) more mature now, and I love that Ness has taken on the task of providing otherwise marginalised kids with an emotional experience to which they can relate. Aside from the general loveliness of the scenes, it warms my heart to think of the societal progress that has led us to this book being written and published.
Release is the kind of book I would like to make required reading; in the internal ideal world to which I am forced to retreat with increasing regularity these days, everyone would read it and the world would become a more loving and peaceful place, such is the power of Ness’ prose. It’s another beautiful book by a writer who seems to specialise in beautiful books, and one which deserves to become a classic.