Seventeen year old Bobby Seed is a carer. His mum has MS, his brother’s unlabelled but almost certainly somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and Dad is a distant memory not worth a mention. Only two things change, really, to give this story some kind of structure: Bobby reluctantly joins a carer’s group for young people in a similar situation, and his mum decides she want to die. This might not seem like a promising premise for a story: unutterably depressing, gloomy, with enormous scope for maudlin. But The Weight Of A Thousand Feathers is none of these things. It’s by turns hilarious, breathtakingly suspenseful and deeply, deeply moving. I can honestly say this is one of the truest and most genuinely profound books I have read, on the theme of love. Because Bobby loves his mum, deeply and truly, and also his annoying but sensitive, vulnerable and surprisingly perceptive little brother Daniel (actual age: 13-14; developmental age: maybe 10, apart from when it comes to computer games). The relationships between the three of them are handled with incredible sensitivity and insight. These people feel real, at a level rarely achieved in fiction. We feel Bobby’s exhaustion, at the constant, never-ending drudgery of chores. We know his isolation, his distance from the normal stuff teenagers get up to at school and in their social and personal lives. We feel his conflicted emotions, as he performs the most intimate of caring tasks for his increasingly incapacitated and incontinent mum; how he carries them out with gentleness and care, but also with unhappy detachment. And then experiences guilt, because he would love to reassure his mum in some way, take away her mortification and shame, but finds himself rigid and unable to respond in that way. The complexities, pain and intensity of such a very close relationship are written beautifully, with rare empathy for all the people involved. The decision Bobby then has to make regarding his mum’s wishes is of course all the more agonizing because of the clarity with which their relationship is realized. Ultimately, the resolution is beautiful in many many ways, and handled exactly right by author, Bobby, Daniel and Mum: a heartbreaking, inevitable yet perfect outcome. Not least because of Bobby’s developing ability as a poet. No expert on poetry, I felt his poems were mostly pure and spare, with the odd very slightly clunky turn of phrase (which I suspect is deliberate, and a nod to his age). Whatever. They express his pain and love absolutely beautifully, in a way plain prose can rarely achieve. This is a beautiful book. Yes, it deals with important “issues:” euthanasia, burgeoning homosexuality, even the injustice of children being obliged to perform a caring role, which is generally given remarkably little recognition in literature or anywhere else. But this is far, far more than an “issues” book. Highly, highly recommended.
At first I thought I might take against this book due to its lack of any strong female characters, and its traditional take on an oppressive social structure (if you believe that a social system based on birth privileges must by its nature be unjust; but that perspective is hardly going to fit with any mediaeval style knights’ tale.) That is a sign of its age, maybe: a modern author would not (hopefully) assume that the female role is to fleetingly appear simply to provide the hero with food, and would have written in a female character with more agency. And oppressive class/cast birthright systems are rarely challenged in modern young people’s literature, or even fantasy.
But, despite those reservations, this is a story that resonates and grows better over time. Tiuri is a character who grows as the story progresses, and somehow has a depth to him that makes the reader fully engage. He is a hero, but a hero full of self-doubt, courage, and reflection as well as decency. He is reminiscent of Harry Potter in the way the reader relates to his struggles, and has a reality and depth that many more superficially written YA characters lack. Maybe it’s the sheer length of the book that tends to this engagement, or the limited third person perspective, or maybe it’s simply that we get to know Tiuri better as his character is revealed through action – which it is – but the reader ends up being deeply invested in him and his travails.
The writing is classically beautiful, the pace is fine given the length of the book, and the morality of the different choices Tiuri is presented with, is at the core of the story. Tiuri is a boy who gives up the most important thing in his life, the chance of knighthood, in order to help a stranger: and that is the beginning of his story. Who can not be hooked by that premise?
A beautiful book, in every way.
This story has a highly interesting premise: the King Arthur legend, but retold with a gender switch – Arti is a girl, just discovering her mythical role – and the magical power of words, of books rather than the sword, being the weapons of destruction, control and freedom. Should literacy be for all (the good guys, Arti and her round table of mixed-gender knights)? Or for just the few, to control and blinker the masses (The bad guys, Morgan Fay and her evil son Mordred)? Plus there is modern technology: wicked Morgan’s mantra is “a picture is worth a thousand words;” readers are hunted down and executed mercilessly, scribes even more so, and the masses are all obliged to carry their wee screens with them at all times, so Big Sister Morgan both knows where they are and controls their thoughts.
To me, this is a story with masses of potential and could have had a lot to say, but it was disappointing. Maybe even more disappointing because expectations were high. The style is lively but superficial. The pacing is poorly handled: suspense is never built effectively. The characters hint at interest and depth, but never get there: they remain one-dimensional.
Maybe a very young readership would enjoy this, but it lacks the texture, depth and power to engage a more sophisticated audience.
This was an intriguing premise and could raise some thought-provoking ethical questions on the right thing to do when you see a child being abused, and the relative love and rights of biological/non-biological parents. Rea Frey’s two narrators, the unattractive, highly stressed, non-maternal mother Amy, and the kidnapping professional thirty-something Sarah, are portrayed with some depth and perception. Neither is maybe fully realized although it is a brave attempt.
Amy is too wholly unattractive: plain, fat, terrible skin, horrible gas and bowel problems, hate-filled and angry toward her 5 year old daughter.
Sarah’s behavior is short-sighted and dim, probably not really in character with a highly successful businesswoman. It could be a lesson in how not to be a fugitive, which would run something like this: have no longterm plan, let alone a realistic one. Stay in your ex’s house and then when he gives you forty eight hours before he turns you in, go for picnics and play by the lake until the 47th hour, then be surprised when the cops turn up a few minutes early. Alter your appearance after you’ve been recognized a few times. Sell and buy your car legally to leave a clear paper trail.
Luckily the police have forgotten basic procedure, such as identifying the owner of a suspect vehicle, or even obtaining the name and vehicle details of an identified suspect from an informant, so Sarah miraculously gets away with it and keeps running.
Despite this nonsense, I did quite enjoy the story, but it was slow, repetitive and fluffy in parts, with Sarah rehashing stuff a lot: describing the little girl Emma’s appearance and their twenty-seventh visit to the playground, and her fraught relationship with her own mother. She murmurs a hundred times about how beautiful Emma is, how she’d love to be a family, how she dreams of living with Emma like this is a summer haze… without once coming up with a practical strategy for making this or any other future happen.
The novel is told through segments: before, during, and after, and through two pov, which I didn’t mind but suspect is a device to make a very simple linear tale more interesting.
The ending? Nice in a fairy tale sort of way: Amy is happy to let Emma go, Sarah gets verbal permission over the phone to keep her – but real world? Birth certificates, medical records, not to mention the police search and Amber Alert: how on earth could this have been managed? The book glosses over this, for very good reason: there is no reasonable explanation. Plus wishy-washy biological dad’s rights are conveniently invisible.
I’ve said it before and this is something that bugs me: there seems to be a double standard of realism, accuracy and authenticity when it comes to matters of police and law in fiction. Crime thrillers aimed at least in part at men, have to be spot on. Women’s fiction, on the other hand, often doesn’t even attempt real-world probability. Is that because publishers and authors think women readers are less well-versed in police and legal procedure? I don’t know, but I find it disrespectful of the female readership.
I did wonder, too, why did Emma had to be beautiful, while her mother was plain? Suppose it had been the other way round? Would Sarah’s emotions have been so readily engaged by a plain and pudgy child with eczema? Her misery could have been easily as evident and no less painful than a pretty child’s. And unhappy children often are obese: they comfort eat, and it’s easy for parents to shut them up with junk food.
But despite these caveats – I am sure lovers of Jodi Picoult will enjoy this story. It’s rich book club material, is basically well-written, raises some interesting issues, and has a good heart.
What Works And Why?
We read to escape, enjoy, engage, and find out more about our world. So reading is great - but what makes a great read? A page dedicated to short analyses of how writers engage readers.