I Was Here by Gayle Forman (YA)

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Reviewed by Annabel

When I read Gayle Forman’s debut novel If I Stay back in 2009, the juggernaut that is today’s YA book industry was in its relative infancy. Being in my late forties, I was also new to reading books for teens having gone straight from books for children to those for adults when I was a child. As my daughter was nearing ten then I started to read some so we could talk about them when she was older, as she is now.

If I stay, being the first YA book I read back then, was a revelation. It’s a family drama about a seventeen year old promising cellist on the brink of life who is critically injured in a car accident and is instead on the brink of death. The characters were wonderful and I cried buckets! It intelligently explored its central dilemma, as Jodi Picoult does in her issue-based novels, but through the eyes of teenagers, and tellingly, never gave up hope.

Years have gone by and in between Forman has written several more novels (which I haven’t had time to read). Would her latest, I was here, have a similar effect on me?

If you read the blurb, you’ll come to the book forearmed – but it was still a shock to turn to page one and see this:

The day after Meg died, I received this letter:

I regret to inform you that I have had to take my own life. This decision has been a long time coming, and was mine alone to make. I know it will cause you pain, and for that I am sorry, but please know that I needed to end my own pain. This has nothing to do with you and everything to do with me. It’s not your fault.

She emailed copies of the letter to her parents and to me, and to the Tacoma police department, along with another note informing them which motel she was at, which room she was in, what poison she had ingested, and how her body should be safely handled. On the pillow at the motel room was another note – instructing the main to call the police and not touch her body – along with a fifty-dollar tip.

She sent the emails on a time delay. So that she would be long gone by the time we received them.

Meg and Cody had been best friends for years, all the way through school. This year, when Meg went off to university at Tacoma on a scholarship, was the first time they’d been separated. Cody, whose single parent mum couldn’t afford any fees, shelved her plans and became a cleaner instead. Naturally perhaps, being apart like this had led to the first slight cracks in their friendship, but Cody had had no inkling at all that Meg would commit this irrevocable act.

The whole town is shocked by it. There are endless vigils, prayer meetings and memorial services – it’s not until Meg’s parents ask Cody if she wouldn’t mind going to Tacoma for them to pack up Meg’s things in the house she had shared, that Cody is forced to take stock.

It is when Cody gets there that she realizes she knew Meg less well than she thought. Meg’s plan had been so thorough that she, the messiest girl in the world, had left her room all spruce with clothes neatly piled up. It’s not until Cody finds Meg’s laptop and can’t resist checking to see ‘that’ email. She then sees others which raise questions, making Cody feel that something is very, very wrong. Firstly, there’s the chain of messages from when Meg and one-time boyfriend Ben broke up. Then, there are some encrypted files that didn’t get deleted and show that Meg had been talking on the wrong kind of forums. Cody is going to need help to understand what happened so she can come to terms with Meg’s death. Luckily Meg’s housemate Harry is a computer geek, and then there’s Ben.

Adding the mystery element to the heartbreak of Meg’s tragic suicide and the grief on all sides, together with later romance, made this novel absolutely unputdownable. I read it in one sitting and cried again in several places. As the awfulness of what had happened became clear, my sadness turned to horror. What is worse, as Forman makes clear in an author’s note at the end, the genesis of the novel came from a real case. Thankfully, numbers to call and some links for good advice for teens and their parents are also included (UK numbers in the UK edition).

It doesn’t give anything away to say that there is light at the end of the tunnel of this novel. Despite its depressing opening and the horrors of Cody’s investigations, it is important to show its prime readership that you can come through trauma and grief of this kind, being the ones left behind, and Cody’s changing focus in narrating the story clearly shows her emotional progress.

As attitudes towards mental illness improve in our society, novels like this can play a part in helping us all talk about it. This is the first YA one I’ve read in which someone actually did kill themselves though, it is more usual for suicide attempts in novels to fail, (as in Plath’s The Bell Jar of course). Anyone who enjoyed Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower will find much to appreciate here, as will Jodi Picoult fans of issue-based drama. You do need to be a brave reader to take this book on though and, due to a little sex and swearing, I’d suggest 14+.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and is proud to read YA books.

Gayle Forman, I was here (Simon & Shuster, London, 2015). ISBN 97801471124396, paperback original, 288 pages.

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