”If you’re lonely right now, you have to understand that it’s not half as lonely as you’ll feel for the rest of your life, once you know what I know.”
Full disclosure, I didn’t realise this was a Middle Grade book until I got approved for this galley. The last MG book I read was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. So I was expecting to feel out of my element while reading this, only to be surprised how fascinating this turned out.
In the beginning anyway.
I really liked how manic this author’s imagination seem to be, that you have to wonder what herbal plane he’s operating on. I just wish he also took something to rein in all that creativity, enough to make the story more coherent and sensible.
Hannah Silver lives with her mother, Leanna, on the Cliff House, a property with a lighthouse in their backyard. She’s a little quirky: imaginary friends, imaginary language and imaginary, horrible obstacles on the lighthouse’s stairway that she counteracts with certain manoeuvres. So that’s schizophrenia, OCD and stairway phobia. On the day an odd pair of gentlemen visits the Cliff House, her mother reveals to her that the mysterious door in the lighthouse is a portal to the after-life and their family has been tasked to be its Guardians. The next day, Hannah finds her mother dead.
Intent on finding her mother, Hannah goes inside the door and discovers The City of the Dead where there’s a war going on between The Banished souls and The Watchers. As she entails the help of her now corporeal imaginary friends, an ambitious artistic boy, a playful paint lizard and an honour-bound warrior girl to find her mother, she discovers the truth about the strange, infinite world she’s now tasked to guard over.
While mulling over this story last night, I realised that I did enjoy the book while I was reading it, but not the story as a whole. I’m a fan of eccentric and absurdist humour and I like how this was the general of The Door. If there’s one thing you can’t accuse this book of, it’s generic.
Her pony kicked her telescope, while his lobster snapped its claws at her tree. The sprites flitted and spun and battled. All at once there was a sound like shattered glass and the man cried out in frustration as his telescope vanished, followed by his coffee mug.
I mean, that’s a fight sequence between wristwatches, obviously.
It takes a bit of time to get used to Marino’s whimsy, certainly some workout in my increasingly limited imagination: The Muffin language, toothpicks and a space bar disappearing in Hannah’s thumb, a giant fish ship, a talking reverse Pensieve… the story progressed with a Through the Looking Glass feel to it which I enjoyed for what it is. Unlike Sarah Fine’s Sanctum, where the after-life has a dreary, noir feel to it, The City of the Dead was built with some Seussian creativity. The characters were quirk and fun, I particularly enjoyed Throckmorton and Urvashi’s nonsensical terms of endearments to each other which ranged from “melon ball” to “finely-aged cheddar” to “tangy vinaigrette”.
But if there’s another thing you can’t accuse this book of, it’s coherent. Elaborate world building is well and good but I do need for it to make sense. Because logic and coherence seem to have taken the backseat in this case. Pertinent elements that were pointed out in the beginning (i.e. people who stay in the City of the Dead gradually begin to forget the lives they led when they were alive) mattered very little in the grand scheme of things or seem to only be true for the main protagonists. The organization of The Watchers and The Guardians had very little background on how that came about and while it was cute to see the bureaucratic nightmares the afterlife still offers in this book, the humour felt hollow without some firm context supporting it.
Marino gave painstaking details of the architecture and population in every city Hannah and her friends visit, but not enough attention to the foundations of the relationships between Hannah and the other characters. Because at certain points their emotional stock and importance felt grossly underestimated for what the story was making them out to be. I’m sorry, your imaginary friends are disappearing? Sacrificing themselves so you won’t forget about your mom?
The ending was an all out WTF affair. The kind that would’ve made you angry had you any investment on the outcome of Hannah’s adventures. I’m still not quite sure if it was a blessing or a curse that I really didn’t give that much fuck when I got to it. It was such a lazy, throwaway of an ending, clearly without any effort on the part of the author whatsoever. I kept wondering if this was written on a drug-fuelled, two-hour lunch break and when the warning bell rang, the writer just decided to paste a hasty The End and left it at that.
I suppose, I can imagine this would have been a good bedtime story for people trying to raise atheists. It’s just that, the story had some massive problems in coherence, they might unintentionally convert their children and themselves to any form of organized religion.
”What was I going to be called if I was a boy?” Hannah asked in the pickup truck during last year’s trip.
“Sylvester obviously Silver.”
“I’m just kidding,” her mother said. “You were going to be Boris.”
ARC provided by the publishers.