Van Diemen at 17
by Jeania Kimbrough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Van Diemen at 17 / 978-0-615-38717-8
I was fortunate to read Jeania Kimbrough's debut novel "Van Diemen at 17" first through her blog (for the first three chapters) and then through an electronic copy that Kimbrough was kind enough to send me for review. It's been a joy to follow main character Kara's journey not only through her own story, but also through Kimbrough's hurdles of publication. There's something about Kara that speaks so strongly to me and reminds me so viscerally of myself at her age. As a young woman navigating the strange and unfamiliar territory of being an exchange student, Kara has the misfortune of being exposed to people and administrations who are more concerned with using her for their own selfish ends rather than trying to help her have a meaningful and enlightening year abroad. By the time we join Kara, she has already spiraled deeply down into depression, and all we can do is watch and silently cheer for her as she struggles to overcome the feelings of inertia, guilt, and sadness that weigh her deeply down.
I can't help but admire "Van Diemen at 17" for its clear and accurate portrayal of depression - it's rare to find a book that really encompasses the full feelings of loneliness and isolation that deep depression can bring, and if Kara sometimes seems like her own worst enemy as she engages in self-destructive behavior (in an attempt to assert some measure of control over her chaotic life), it's because that's what depression does to people - it can completely drown you in such strong feelings of guilt and self-hatred that any positive action becomes almost impossible. Author Kimbrough understands that, and even as Kara berates herself to the reader, there is always the subtle understanding between author and reader that Kara's opinions of her actions are not to be taken as gospel. It's the same unreliable narration-of-self that I loved so much in "The Hunger Games" trilogy, and to much the same effect - noticeably, that the reader will likely be much easier on Kara (and much harder on her companions) than Kara herself is.
It would be difficult to list all the things I enjoyed about "Van Diemen at 17". Beyond the realistic portrayal of depression and depression-induced eating disorders found here, I also deeply enjoyed the complexity of all the characters - every single person throughout the novel is realistically human and flawed. Never does the reader feel pushed into a certain interpretation - Kara's allies and antagonists throughout her school year all have very different motives for acting the way they do, and it's up to the reader to decide whether their various reasons excuse their behavior or not. Most refreshingly of all, this light authorial touch extends even to Kara's love interest, which shows a restraint not typical in many young adult novels lately - instead of the most perfect boyfriend in the world, the reader is presented with a human and flawed man, and left to decide for themselves whether or not he is worthwhile.
I can't say whether or not "Van Diemen at 17" will be for everyone; the writing is what I would term "smoothly disjointed" - with a flow that is almost episodic in nature as Kara stumbles through her daily life. This type of writing technique is strongly saturated with the "feel" of depression, and manages to move quickly over Kara's scholastic year while still maintaining a slow, soul-searching meander. In this way, the novel reminds me strongly of my favorite Margaret Atwood books, particularly "The Blind Assassin" - the hazy, dreamy feel as the protagonists of go through the daily motions of life while feeling completely disconnected from those around them is deeply touching, and manages to convey the concept of depression in a way that simple words cannot. In the same vein, the descriptions are particularly vivid in "Van Diemen at 17", but since those descriptions are seen through the point of view of a deeply depressed character, the vivid world around Kara is composed of intensely dark nights, bitterly cold days, and drizzly wet downpours. The feeling of being there with Kara is palpable, but it's impossible to not be dragged down into sadness with her. To me, this is part of the power of the novel, but others may find the experience to be somewhat overwhelming.
In my opinion, if you have ever felt isolated and alone in a small community - be it at home, at school, or at work - or if you have ever battled extensively with depression, I cannot help but think that "Van Diemen at 17" will touch you as deeply as it did me, especially if you aren't in a rush to finish and find delight in morally ambiguous and humanly realistic situations.
NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through the author.
~ Ana Mardoll
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