Book: “Before I Let Go” by Marieke Nijkamp
Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, January 2018
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: Best friends Corey and Kyra were inseparable in their snow-covered town of Lost Creek, Alaska. When Corey moves away, she makes Kyra promise to stay strong during the long, dark winter, and wait for her return.
Just days before Corey is to return home to visit, Kyra dies. Corey is devastated―and confused. The entire Lost community speaks in hushed tones about the town’s lost daughter, saying her death was meant to be. And they push Corey away like she’s a stranger.
Corey knows something is wrong. With every hour, her suspicion grows. Lost is keeping secrets―chilling secrets. But piecing together the truth about what happened to her best friend may prove as difficult as lighting the sky in an Alaskan winter…
Review: I want to extend a special thanks to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book!
It’s been a cold cold cold January up here in L’Etoile du Nord, and while we weren’t hit with a bomb cyclone of snow our temps were pretty low starting out the month. So whenever I read books that take place in Alaska, I usually think to myself ‘yeah, I feel that’. So the town of Lost Creek in “Before I Let Go” felt pretty darn relatable, at least in terms of climate and temperature. But Marieke Nijkamp made sure that the comparisons stopped there, as she created a community based on secrecy and lies. So when I picked this up I thought that I was getting a weird and creepy story about a town hiding things. Sadly, that wasn’t what Nijkamp gave me, and to be honest I’m not totally sure what exactly she did give me. “Before I Let Go” was a bit of a muddled mess.
The story is told in a couple of ways. The main ways are through flashbacks and moments in the present. We see the relationship that Corey and Kyra had before Corey and her mother moved away, and we also see how Corey is dealing with the loss of her friend, and how the town is dealing as well. And within those two ways, we get a couple of devices. Those devices include phone conversations, written out like transcripts, and then actual letters and correspondence, with notes as to whether they were sent or not. I usually like stories that experiment with the storytelling, and these devices were fine. But there was a third device that wasn’t introduced until halfway into the book, and that was through what appeared to be either screenplay or play directions. This only happened a couple of times, and it was introduced so late that it felt less organic and far more jarring. The first time it happened I was completely thrown for a loop, and it yanked me right out of the story. If you are going to use this device, I feel like it would better serve the story if you do it far earlier than halfway into it.
I also had a hard time getting invested in the characters and the story. The description seemed to imply that this was going be a mystery a la “Twin Peaks”, with a strange town with secrets that culminate with a dead girl who died mysteriously, but I didn’t feel like it ever took the plunge with any of the themes. For example, Kyra, who is bipolar (more on that in a bit), painted to cope with her manic episodes, and it’s implied that she has a bit of a psychic or prophetic ability through her painting. So, of course the town starts to take interest in this, as they want to know what their futures hold. Which is fine, but the psychic angle isn’t explored that much at all. It’s just thrown out there as a reason for the town to latch on, and it’s never said why she has them, IF she has them, or how they manifest. So it feels less like an intriguing plot point and more like a device that could have been achieved in other ways. So what did this story want to be? A small town melodrama? A coming of age/coming home story? A supernatural mystery? I wasn’t certain. If it wanted to be all three, I don’t think they were combined well into a single narrative. While we do get to learn a fair amount about Kyra through Corey’s memories, the letters, and the town people and their recollections, I feel like we know very little about Corey, our actual protagonist. All we know is that she had a deep relationship with Kyra, and wants to find out what happened to her, an obsession that is stoked by her own guilt for leaving her in the first place.
I do have to give props on a few things though. I did think that it was neat that Nijkamp made the choices to make a number of her characters LGBTQIA, as Corey is asexual, there is a gay couple in town, and Kyra was a lesbian. One of the central conflicts that Corey is struggling with is the fact that she and Kyra had a tense moment that they never really addressed, which wasn’t so great because it definitely felt a little ‘bury your gays’ for Kyra. But I do like that Nijkamp did have some ace representation, and doesn’t portray Corey as ‘disgusted’ by intimacy, as the stereotypes can sometimes imply. It also seemed to be that Nijkamp was conscientious to be careful and respectful when writing Kyra and her bipolar disorder. There was a very important moment where Kyra expresses frustration that she is only being seen as her bipolar disorder and not as a person, and I think that with so much stigma around mental illness having characters like Kyra is important for representation.
So while I think the representation and the themes of mental illness were well achieved, overall “Before I Let Go” was a disappointment, story wise. I had higher hopes for it, and while I could see myself recommending it to some, if you are looking for the thriller this might have wanted to be, look elsewhere.
Rating 5: It had some promise and takes a responsible and realistic approach to mental illness, but I felt like it didn’t really know what it wanted to be genre wise, and because of this felt confused and muddled.
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