Book review: Release by Patrick Ness

(image courtesy Walker Books)

 

As a young gay man growing up in a Christian household back in the ’70s and ’80s, there was a distinct moment, most likely several really, when it dawned on me with a sickening sense of dread that I was not like everyone else around me.

All the good Christian people who filled the pews around me on a Sunday were good heterosexual souls with families and faith who believed fundamentally in many things including the “fact” that homosexuality was a perverse sin.

To suddenly realise that I was one of the very worst things the church abhorred turned my world inside out, and instead of coming to grips with who I was, and one day owning it like all the other teenagers around me, I instead found myself hiding in the corner, deathly afraid to show my true hand.

In Release, Patrick Ness’s latest novel, this horrible sense of existential limbo is captured, poignantly and accurately, as the gay protagonist Adam Thorn finds his world, his sheltered, closeted world, near-cataclysmically upset from myriad different angles during one life-changing Saturday.

“Twelve more months, he thought, and the Yoke is off. Senior year started in just over a week. After that, the sky. For Adam Thorn wants to get away. Adam Thorn wants to leave, with an ache in his gut so acute it feels like vertigo. Adam Thorn wishes he was going away with the person going away at the end of tonight’s going-away party. Well, maybe he does.” (P. 14)

Well, it feels cataclysmically at least, something he admits to his best friend Angela, his great sanctuary in a world defined by hidden romantic relationships, bigoted fundamentalist minister parents who show more love for their faith than their son, a boss far too inclined to sexual harassment and a brother who is the golden child who can seemingly do no wrong.

Adam has a lot on his plate, and Ness beautifully writes about the emotional stresses and strains that go beyond the usual teenage angst.

For anyone who has ever felt excluded from the world into which they were born, Release is your story, digging into every emotional nook and cranny and exploring how much more pressure than the usual comes to bear when you’re not just grappling with growing up, but growing up wrong.

Well, wrong as far as most of the people around you are concerned.

In short order, Adam, already worn down by the daily struggle to give nothing away, and only able to grab short moments of sexual and emotional intimacy with his boyfriend Linus, ha to deal with surprising news from his family, a major transgressing move by his boss, an admission by Angela and a conversation with his father than he doesn’t expect and which while ultimately freeing, comes with an extraordinary amount of upheaval attached.

 

 

Spliced into this narrative, which has as much humour as it has existential angst, due largely to Angela and Adam’s deliciously well-written banter, are the supernatural elements that Ness is also well-known for.

Centering on a mysterious quest by the Queen, the leader of a supernatural group of beings resident in the lake on the town’s edge, to find the killer of a young woman dumped into the waters by her methhead boyfriend, it links thematically and belatedly at the end of the novel.

These more supernatural elements alternate with the gripping reality of Adam’s slowly-explosive day, seemingly not connected at all, but with both sharing a sense of great change and near-cataclymic dynamics, as each character struggles for some kind of resolution and sense of retrieved self.

Unfortunately while you are drawn deeply into Adam’s world and its attendant changes, all taking place over one quite momentous day, the Queen’s story, while poetically told and gripping in its own way, sits rather awkwardly alongside the more reality-bound narrative and often detracts from its flow.

“Neither he nor Angela could honestly claim to have been through many terrible traumas after the car accident with her mom. They were, on the whole, fairly normal very-lower-middle-class kids in a rural suburb of the big megalopolis that curved around Puget Sound like a J. The Thorns were a clergy family with airs and ambitions; the Darlingtons were farmers, for God’s sake. Nobody has enough money to get into really interesting trouble, and nobody had the inclination for the more readily available trouble just anyone could afford.” (P. 111)

It’s not that the more supernatural parts of the story don’t work, and I appreciate how well Ness often weaves them into his beautifully-told stories, but they really gel with the main storyline.

I kept finding myself, for obvious reasons given how similar Adam’s story was to mine – thankfully I had loving parents but many of the other elements were really and truly in place and it felt like reading my biography in some ways – pulled away from a compelling narrative to one which, while interesting, couldn’t compete for emotional depth or impact.

All that said though, Release, is a quietly powerful book, made all the more so by having everything compacted into such a short period of time.

Writing with profound insight and empathy for Adam’s situation, especially as it twists, turns and falls in stomach-churning ways during what should be just a normal Saturday, Ness crafts a touching coming of age story that carries extra emotional punch thanks to the protagonist having to crafty an entirely new way of living his life and relating to those around him in just 12 hours.

The thing is, whether or not you’ve grappled with a situation like this, you will find much to relate to in Release, since all of us have felt, at one time, that we didn’t fit in or belong, only to find that life demands, as it so often does and in unexpected ways, that we find some accommodation with these disparate elements and make life work for us on our own terms.

 

 

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