Release by Patrick Ness

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Review by Annabel

Only the fact that I’d never read Mrs Dalloway blinded me to the power of the first sentence of Ness’s latest novel:

Adam would have to get the flowers himself.

This is something I remedied the moment I read the acknowledgments to this lovely novel. Ness says:

The spirit of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Judy Blume’s Forever suffuse Release. I can only encourage you to read both to see where I’ve fallen short.

I did read both! Mrs Dalloway was a revelation, one of those few books, like Moby Dick, that have influenced so many others. You may be less familiar with Forever, although it remains hugely influential in the YA sphere. Back in 1975, Blume’s brave novel of “first love, first sex and first heartbreak” was controversial for its frankness in the description of the eventual consensual sex between the main characters. A secondary plot involves a boy who is unsure whether he is gay – an even bigger taboo to write about in a teen-novel back then.

Release does indeed channel both novels. The story takes place over one day (with flashbacks) which will culminate in a party as in Mrs Dalloway. It also recounts the “first love, first sex and first heartbreak” of the main character Adam, who is gay.

Adam has a difficult family situation. His father is a pastor and Adam’s is forced to revolve his life around the church. Neither his parents nor his brother know he is gay – he is viewed as the Prodigal Son. Adam tells his best friend Angela about the party:

“They think it’s a quote get-together with three or four of my friends to say goodbye to Enzo,” he said now.
“That sentence is factually true.”
“While at the same time omitting much.”

Adam’s parents were really only letting him go to the get-together out of relief at Enzo vanishing as an influence in their son’s life.

The hilarious thing was that it had nothing to do with all the physical stuff they’d shared, all the sex and love (Could Adam call it that? Did Enzo? Did he, though?). the intimacy and closeness. If his parents had genuinely suspected any of that, he would have been packed off to ex-gay camp faster than a mosquito’s blink.

No, they objected because Enzo was Catholic.

Enzo, who is moving back to Spain was Adam’s first love.  The party will be bittersweet for both of them, but should offer closure – for Adam is with Linus now. But before the party happens that evening at the lake shore, there is a whole day to get through, and for Adam it’ll change his life forever.  It seems that everything that could happen, does happen. Adam’s brother has some news that’d be on a par with Adam coming out to his parents, Adam’s boss at his job comes on to him, Angela has her own hard news to share added to Adam’s uncertainty about his relationship with Linus. As events unfold, we fear for Adam, that it might all become too much for him; all these layers add to the suspense which builds up to the climax at the party.

Paralleling Adam’s story is a typical Ness fairytale – a grim one. Told in short chapters between the main arc, we meet the ghost of a girl who was murdered at the lake shore, a faun and the spirit of a mythical queen. They are also seeking closure – to be released from their entrapment in our world. If you’ve read other books by Ness, such as The Rest of Us Just Live Here which also has a supernatural secondary story, you’ll know that he can make it work (as opposed to A Monster Calls, where the supernatural element is an integral part of the young protagonist’s own story).

Ness handles all the events with confidence. Although, this is a YA novel, it’s adult beyond Judy Blume in how Ness tackles the sex – it is sensitively done, but is not really for younger readers. One senses that writing this novel was also a form of release for Ness himself, with parallels between his own predicament coming from a US Army family, and Adam’s strict upbringing.  Patrick Ness’s novels always make me cry – Release was no exception and I think he’s done Forever and Mrs Dalloway proud.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors.

Patrick Ness, Release (Walker Books, 2018) ISBN 9781406331172, paperback, 286 pages.

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