Nova Ren Suma has been on my absolutely-must-read list since her debut, but I've only just gotten around to reading one of her books. With any new author so beloved in the blogosphere, there's the fear that the books won't live up to the hype. Well, Nova Ren Suma did. Imaginary Girls wasn't what I expected, but it was so much better than that. Suma's debut is a gloriously dark magical realism mindfuck of a novel that kept me curious through every page.
On the surface, Imaginary Girls is a contemporary mystery, the story of two sisters, relatively calm and placid, like the surface of a reservoir. Underneath those waters, though, is another story, a whole town of issues, buried beneath the waters. Suma plumbs these depths, leaving the reader questioning what is real and what is insanity. Imaginary Girls walks the line between realistic fiction, magical realism and flat-out paranormal in such a way that I'm still not sure precisely how I should categorize it.
Chloe, the narrator, is hardly the heroine of her own story. She lives in the orbit of her older sister, Ruby, like everyone else in their town. Ruby is a sun, and everyone within the pull of her personality moves according to her whims. All the boys want her, all the girls want to be her, and she will never love anyone as much as she loves Chloe. Whatever Ruby wants, Ruby gets; no one can deny her anything, so long as they remain in their little town. Everything else is like our world, but Ruby exerts a pull that is truly out of this world.
When Ruby orders Chloe to swim across the reservoir and back at night, and to dive down at the center to grab a souvenir from Olive, the town underwater, Chloe does it. She believes Ruby's assertions that she can do it; Ruby will protect her from anything, absolutely anything. As she swims, cold water and fear engulf her, the sounds of the partiers watching her attempt this feat quieting behind her. Just when she feels she can't swim anymore, she encounters a boat with a dead girl inside, London, a girl from her class.
After this, her father, different from Ruby's, takes her away with him, away from Ruby's influence and their alcoholic mother, away from the reservoir, away from the tragedy. Ruby comes for her, though, finally, two years later. When Chloe arrives back in town, she learns something surprising: London's there and alive. Everyone says she swam across the reservoir that night and that London had gone away to rehab, not that she died. Needless to say, the mystery deepens.
Of course, Chloe could just be crazy, her mind splintering from the tragic events of that night. As in Ian McEwen's Atonement, this whole story could be some sort of creation of her own mind to explain what happened that night or her delusional dream in the institution where she's living out her life. In no way do I think Chloe's a reliable narrator, which adds layers to the already complicated narrative. Nothing is ever certain, which leaves the reader thinking and desperate to unravel the truth.
Suma's writing style is one that I would not ordinarily love, but it worked perfectly for this tale. There's a poetic element to it, and a sort of watery uncertainty, as through the truth is a moving target, bobbing on the ripples. The entirety of Imaginary Girls is dreamy and thought-provoking. Also, dark. Suma does not shy away from drug use, sex, violence, or other tough topics.
At its core, Imaginary Girls focuses on the relationship between Ruby and Chloe. The love between the two is powerful, but also a burden. It's so rare to find YA that focuses on sisterhood over romance, but Suma barely touches on romance. Boys matter so much less to both Ruby and Chloe than sisterhood does.
What Left Me Wanting More:
I never really connected with the characters. It's more about the atmosphere and eerieness than character, really.
The Final Verdict:
On a lot of levels, I'm still not sure what went down in this novel and that's really the beauty of it. If you liked your novels wrapped up in a bow with a moral and clear resolution, Imaginary Girls is not the read for you. However, if you love to open your mind up to new ideas and the puzzle of trying to figure out a mindfuck, go read this ASAP.