Review: I Was Here by Gayle Forman

I Was HereSuicide and depression demand exploration in fiction. As both subjects become increasingly less taboo – though we’ve some ways to go, societally, to fully acknowledge depression as an illness; a disease, not a pliable outlook on life – writers have penned both heartening and uplifting stories, detailing courageous battles against this invisible enemy, as well as narratives rooted in the reality, that don’t necessarily have a happy ending; or rather, a Hollywood ending, with loose ends all tied up. As a character in Gayle Forman’s I Was Here says: “[Depression] is not something that visits once and disappears.” There’s no full-stop for survivors, just a never-ending battle.

It’s such a challenging subject to adroitly write about; and clumsy execution eradicates any story’s potential potency. Of course, that was never going to be a problem with I Was Here. Forman was proved herself, time and time again, as a wonderful writer, capable of delivering unflinchingly honest portraits of young people’s lives. In this instance, her latest novel focuses on depression, with the suicide of Megan Garcia, friend of Cody, who had no idea how troubled Meg was, and can’t grasp why her supposed best friend didn’t confide in her, or come to her at her hour of need. Forman frames the novel as a mystery, as Cody boldly investigates the death of her best friend, and learns that Meg was in regular contact with a ‘support’ group; the kind that actively encouraged her to end her life rather than put her in contact with professionals who might’ve been able to help. There’s a touch of romance along the way, plenty of self-discovery for Cody, but at its core, I Was Here is a novel rooted in the darkness of depression, and spotlighting its devastating impacts; not just on the sufferer, but on their closest confidants, as well as the wider community.

Importantly, Forman never preaches about the subject. I Was Here is not a sermon wrapped around pretty prose – character remains paramount, and Cody is very real, a young woman who was struggling without her best friend by her side when Meg left for college, and is now simultaneously burdened by the notion she somehow missed a clue, and inconsolable that perhaps Meg never came to her in the first place; in effect, bringing their relationship into question. And with that comes guilt: how can Cody feel betrayed at a time like this? How can she feel like the victim?

I was Here is Gayle Forman at her absolute best. If I Stay set the bar unbelievably high; her latest lifts her up another rung on the ladder. As always, you’ll laugh and you’ll cry, and you won’t be able to stop turning the pages.

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Review: If I Stay by Gayle Forman

If I StayWhen I was a kid, during those quiet, contemplative moments reserved for homework, I would often let my mind wander. I was never very good at maths or science, but I was an A-level procrastinator. On several occasions I wondered what life might be like if:

a) I suddenly ceased to exist
b) I never existed at all

These were never depressive thoughts; I never pondered the futility of life, or questioned the reason for my existence. These were very base-level scenarios I concocted; alternate realities I imagined and bared witness to. In some, I passed away from a long illness and imagined what people might say on my deathbed (morose, I know); in other situations, I died heroically, and my tombstone would be emblazoned with the ‘Superman’ insignia.

Looking back, it’s a fascinating insight into my mentality at the time. I was always a very reserved, introverted person: these scenarios were ways to boost my ego, at least in my own mind; how would a lack of me alter the histories of the people in my life? Or would it at all? Had I made that little of an impression, my non-existence would be like water off a ducks back?

In Gayle Forman’s novel IF I STAY, Mia’s world is shattered in an instant, leaving her in a transitory ethereal state, bearing witness to events around her as her friends and family cope with the devastating loss. As they surround her hospital bed, Mia watches and listens, struggling to decide whether she should leave that world of pain behind. If she wakes, life will never be the same; is that truly a life she wants to return to?

IF I STAY is a short, achingly emotional story; equal parts love story and tragedy. At its heart, it is about family, and its importance in our lives; how we struggle with the burden of their expectations, but cherish those moments when we reach, and better them. How that familial bond is unbreakable; no matter how divisive our personalities are, no matter how much of an outcast we might feel like, we are united. This is a novel that reminds us how important we are to each other, and how we should take every moment we can to emphasise that.
Mia’s choice is a heart-breaking one, and we come to understand, and accept, her decision through multiple flashbacks, expounding on the various relationships in her life. These relationships feel genuine, which makes the journey to Mia’s ultimate decision all the more affecting.

IF I STAY is poignant and touching; a novel that dredged long-suppressed memories from my youth, and reminded me how much we all have to live for, no matter how much we lose, or how painful our individual journeys can be. Forman’s prose isn’t as heavy-handed as that; she doesn’t preach to the reader, and there is every chance I am reading too much into it. But that’s why we read stories, and that’s why fiction plays such a vital role in our lives; every readers experience is different and equally true. I’m just sorry I didn’t read the novel years ago.