“The story of a girl that learns to live from a boy who wants to die.”
All The Bright Places is a heart-breaking novel that simply must be read. It is rare to find a book that is so open about mental illness, and rarer still to find one that actually rings true with the reality as opposed to societal stigmas. Violet Markey meets Theodore Finch on the roof of their high school as they both contemplate committing suicide. Finch talks Violet down, however Violet is hailed the hero as no one can believe these thoughts could ever cross her mind. From then on, a beautiful friendship is born. Set around a school project to explore the wonders of Indiana, Jennifer Niven gives the pair much more than they bargained for and sends them on a journey of self-discovery together.
The opening chapters seem to poke fun at depression, but this is what makes All The Bright Places enjoyable, encouraging the reader into such dark subject matter. Without the light moments of comedy this book would fall flat and wouldn’t make any impact, however Niven has cleverly woven in witty exchanges between heart wrenching moments to keep the reader sane and interested throughout. As the story progresses, particularly towards the final chapters, a serious tone begins to consume the novel, creating a sobering experience. At times you wish to lengthen out the turning of the pages simply because you can’t bear to witness the inevitable unfold before your eyes. All The Bright Places does not end how we first presume it will: the climax is only made predictable when Niven wants us to realise where the story is taking us. It is an outcome that we suspect, but not one that we are first drawn to.
The focus of the novel is depression and mental illness, but this isn’t the only thing this book has going for it. Niven takes a unique and very real view of mourning and grieving, particularly on the part of Violet. Violet’s sister died in a car crash the pair were involved in a year before she met Finch, so she blames herself and is trying helplessly to move on with her life. But the key to her happiness is not moving on but accepting what has happened – a statement we could all learn from. Finch helps Violet to accept the past and they begin living in the present together. Many readers could argue that an overused stereotype develops – to overcome depression you need someone to do it for you – but for All The Bright Places that simply isn’t true. Finch helps Violet, but the only person who can get past these dark days in her life is her. She is not weak for accepting help, but strong because it goes against everything that Violet previously believed. The pair help each other when facing their demons – they are an allegory for the isolating effect mental illness can have – but the message is clear: you are never alone, and there is always someone out there willing to listen.
It must be said that the writing style resembles that of John Green, which some readers may struggle to move past, however this can give Niven an advantage. Unusually it doesn’t disgruntle readers when certain lines make you inwardly cringe, possibly because All The Bright Places never tries to be something it is not. The most compelling factor is the raw emotion being displayed chapter after chapter. The novel doesn’t sugar coat anything but it doesn’t obsess over the mental struggles of the characters, which in turn reflects the real nature of mental illness. We have good and bad days, but it is only during the bad days that we focus more on our feelings and daily struggles. This is synonymous with all forms of daily life, but for someone with a mental illness this effect is magnified.
The use of settings helps explain the strange and wonderful mind of Theodore Finch whilst perfectly illustrating what is happening within the narrative, without spoon feeding it to the reader. Often symbolism within settings is dumbed down to keep the focus on events that are taking place. However, Niven only explains the significance of the setting once the reader has had a chance to make their own assumptions, a clever writing technique on her part that only creates an active reading experience.
This book will make you laugh, cry and re-evaluate your perceptions of the world around you. Now that mental health is beginning to be openly talked about, All The Bright Places fits right into society’s changing perceptions. There is still a long way to go to finally stamp out the stigma, but Jennifer Niven, along with countless other public figures, are helping to finally turn the tide. Very few people have the guts to do what Jennifer Niven has done: write openly about an issue close to her heart. It isn’t a literary master piece, but it is a book that deserves recognition.
If you enjoy books that tackle difficult subject matter in a way that doesn’t tip toe round the elephant in the room then All The Bright Places is a book for you. A must read for anyone who has been touched by mental health, whether through personal experience or just wanting to gain a deeper understanding of a growing issue in modern society.
Words by Melissa Churchill