Deeply layered, moving, and at times terrifying
WHAT I LOVED:
Once upon a time, as this storytelling-focused story might begin a tale, Corey and Kyra were best friends in the microscopic Lost Creek. Then Corey’s family moved to Canada and Corey went away to boarding school. Seven months later, Kyra died when the ice broke on a frozen lake and she fell in. In those seven months, Lost went from considering Kyra a bipolar “danger” to the revered hometown golden girl. Corey doesn’t trust a bit of what she’s hearing, but Lost no longer trusts her. Seven months away is enough time for Corey to become an outsider–and Lost doesn’t take kindly to outsiders. Contemporary, horror, suspense, mystery, something unexplainable–the span of genres in Before I Let Go lends it a multifaceted quality. Though busy at times, it works well and keeps you reading.
If you were worried this would be just another Dead Girl book–one in which the main character’s personal journey is centered entirely on an unknowable dead girl–you will be pleased to know it’s not. Though Lost is obsessed with controlling Kyra’s narrative and Corey tells us of the Kyra she knew, the dearly departed still tells her own story through her letters to Corey and a diary she hid from Lost. Like I said, storytelling-focused story. If you were a fan of Hamilton‘s storytelling theme, Before I Let Go will be your new best friend.
Nijkamp’s chosen setting of tiny Lost Creek, Alaska is brilliantly written and appropriately claustrophobic. It more than fulfills the two needs for such a setting: a sparse town with only a handful of places to be and a small population of recognizable, individual people. My mom grew up in a town like Lost Creek and regularly tells stories about it. The way Corey talks about lost is almost identical to the way Mom talks about her hometown when we visit and she points out all three notable places.
The people of Lost are what gives the novel its tinge of horror and suspense too! They–especially Kyra’s parents–are so determined to protect Kyra’s “legacy” that they unite into a single terrifying entity when Corey opposes them. For God’s sake, they just stood there and watched when the cabin Corey was staying in caught fire and she had to escape through a window. A town and population like this could come right out of a Stephen King novel.
The legacy Lost wants so desperately to protect? Kyra’s painted prophecies. The return of mining work to town via a new investor, specific people and places Corey visits throughout, her own manner of death,… She predicted these and more in her art. It’s not paranormal or magical realism, simply the unexplainable. Among other unexplainable things: WHAT WAS GOING ON WITH AARON’S CABIN?
But the strongest idea at the core of Before I Let Go are deconstructions of “suffering for your art” and the misconceptions surrounding mentally ill creatives. Kyra painted to cope with her bipolar disorder, not to indulge any passion for art. Once Lost discovered her painted prophecies, they came to depend on her only for her art and isolated her in a abandoned spa. Since she only painted during her manic episodes and her medication helped control her moods, they withheld her meds. If the painted visions required she suffered for her art, then so be it. They’d make sure she suffered. She’d already foretold her own death, after all.
Think about some of the mentally ill creatives throughout history, like Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway. Both wrote works of literary genius and both committed suicide when they were relatively young. Had they gotten effective treatment, they may have lived much longer and produced much more work. But would it have been as well-received as the work they made with poor treatment or none at all?
Like the people of Lost, we simply accept the relationship between their work and lack of treatment without much thought. We don’t wonder whether they created due to passion or simply to cope, or how they felt about what they created. A mentally ill creative might make something they dislike or nothing at all with poor/no treatment and only make something they truly love/are passionate about when getting good treatment–or nothing at all if they’re like Kyra and only create to cope. No art is ever worth the suffering of the artist. Them getting treatment is more important than any art they make without it.
Because Lost never thought about any of the above, Kyra died. How many lives have prematurely ended because we didn’t think about any of this either?
WHAT LEFT ME WANTING:
Nijkamp’s debut This Is Where It Ends has set a high standard by spending over a year on the New York Times bestseller list, but Before I Let Go has it beat. It’s a deeply layered, moving, and at times terrifying novel I’d teach to high school students if I could stomach teaching. It’s not emotionally easy to read, but you’d be missing brilliance if you skipped out on this visceral reading experience.
*unexpected but welcomed horror elements
*like Hamilton, in a way: "who lives, who dies, who tells your story"