Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

Genre: Young adult thriller
Publisher, Year: HarperTeen, 2007
Other Works: A Pack of Lies
Flags: Adult themes, tenuous references
Rating: A-, or Good w/ Minor Problems
Challenge: Outdo Yourself, Library
Premise: A young girl, Sym, embarks on an adventure with her quirky uncle to the bottom of the world. For Sym, it is a perfect backdrop to her obsession, as she loves everything Antarctic, including her imaginary friend, Titus Oates, an early explorer who died in the pursuit of their shared hobby.

So, I have this problem with walking by the awards shelf in the YA section of my library and picking up something that looks interesting to read on the side. However, these books end up taking over my life! And I can’t concentrate on anything until I’ve finished them. After this one, I’ve got to take a break because it literally commandeered my every waking thought until it finally hurdled toward an agonizing finish. Finished it in a grand total of two days. Another Printz winner, and for good reason.

Sym is in love with her imaginary friend, Titus, an Antarctic explorer who bravely died in his quest. It hasn’t been an easy time for Sym; she faces family tragedy, partial deafness, and painful shyness that makes her feel as if she will never fit in. But when she reads her books about Antarctica and allows herself to dissolve into that world of cold discovery, she feels at home, with Titus by her side. After the untimely death of her father, a family friend, Victor, steps in, a man she calls “uncle,” though they are unrelated. He’s the father figure she yearns for, and though a bit strange, she trusts him entirely. So, when he offers to take her to Paris for the weekend, Sym jumps at the chance. She could never have known that a simple weekend holiday would turn into an adventure gone horrifically wrong.

This book is packed with one nail-biting incident after another. I could hardly turn the pages fast enough. I was interested to see how the author would bring Sym’s imaginary boyfriend to life in a believable way, and I was not disappointed in that respect. Titus was arguably the most intriguing character, the way he popped up just when Sym needed him the most, with a sarcastic remark, a telling eye roll, or a shoulder to lean on. He was a perfect window into Sym’s soul--we got insight into exactly how Sym is feeling through this “inner” dialogue. Sym herself was also an interesting character, if flawed. Perhaps a symptom (no pun intended) of her mental state, Sym seemed to take a backseat in her own life. Instead of acting on her own instincts, and then knowledge as the truth become clearer, she waited and waited--even in the end when nothing could be left in question. Despite this incredible weakness, she was also strong in other ways. She immersed herself in this make-believe world, which although of her own creation, was based in reality, in Antarctica. Every fact she read, every story she memorized, was stored away in her perfect memory. It added incredible detail to her daydreams, so she could crawl into them and rest in a place she respected, where she was loved. Problems only surfaced when Sym was forced to see her Antarctica in all its harsh glory.

It’s a little unfair how I’ve judged this book because so much of what disappoints me was born of my incongruous expectations. I thought this book would be more of an internal adventure, as Sym and Titus found a way to solve life’s mysteries together. I thought Titus would take an even more prominent position than he did, present for every moment of Sym’s waking consciousness. And the novel did begin this way, but then took a sharp turn, which really shouldn’t have been a big surprise. But then more and more of what happened seemed a bit fishy, and then the story devolved into a basic psychological thriller.

If that had been what I expected, I think I would have very little to complain about. Instead, I felt a serious, yet light-hearted story turned rather dark and malevolent. I don’t know what more to say about that, than it is so. In the end, my feelings toward that chosen tone were quite indifferent. And that’s what made me not love the book in the end. I simply had lost interest in the characters, considering that they became, in my mind, mere pawns in a twisted plot.

I do, however, understand perfectly why this book won the Printz. McCaughrean is an excellent writer, and I felt completely sucked into her world, so much so that, while reading, I often felt an Antarctic chill run down my back. I felt like reading this book curled up with a wool blanket and a cup of hot chocolate, and that’s saying something when the temperature outside is nearing 100. I really wish I had read it in winter--it would have been perfectly chilling. In the end, I can still appreciate the quality of writing and the genius behind a well-thought out plot. Although not on my must read list, still time well spent.

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