(Content warning: suicide, death)
One of the most profound things my lecturer said in a Sociology of Death and Dying paper that I took 3 years ago was that ‘We possess language for the living; death is difficult to talk about because we do not possess vocabulary for the dead’.
And I think this statement bears a lot of truth. When one of my family members died three years ago, I observed how my family grappled with his death. I observed how so little was spoken, how grief was expressed through action and rationalization, the surrealism, and how the same words were used over and over again. I observed how his death caused a reality rip – when something affects a group of people, causing them to be vulnerable, disturbed, or, in this case, introspective about their own mortality.
What I experienced and observed emerged in I Was Here. It is a book about grasping at the questions and the ever-elusive answers following an unexpected death, about trying to make sense of death and the reasons why, the difficult process of forgiveness, and finding the courage to move forward. Its end is subtle – never spoken outright – but is a gradual realization. And it is a painful one, to understand the great lengths we go to justify our anger and our pain. The main character, Cody, who survives her best friend’s death, expresses such visceral anger, confusion, and desperation that it is felt secondhand. This is what I loved about I Was Here.
I acknowledge that I Was Here paints a poignant and raw image of the aftermath of suicide. However, there were times where the narrative dragged – and I’m not sure if that was intended or not, which is my point of concern. In Cody’s obsessive mission to avenge her friend and justify her death, something is lost along the way: depth, feeling and rawness. This is largely attributed to Meg’s lack of depth; for a character that is so central to the story, Meg’s character remains hollow and flat until its end. As the reader, I didn’t know Meg – I had to take the narrator’s word for it, but her characterization was a chain of telling-not-showing and vague mentions. Meg was more of an idea rather than a character, and it is harder to feel sympathy for the former.
Like the majority of those who have read I Was Here, the sub-plot romance was unnecessary and disappointing. In fact, I would argue that it made the book lesser than what it could have been. For the better half of the book, I was led to believe that the male character would have an integral role in the novel; perhaps they would overcome their grief together in a sensitive way. I was greatly disappointed to discover that that was not the case, and he was just an object to ensure a somewhat-optimistic ending or a token of forgiveness. There was so much more could have been accomplished and explored instead, but by wavering in its focus, I Was Here lost its impact, and its significance as a relevant and necessary novel for young adults diminished. What a letdown.
Furthermore, it needs to be said that I Was Here is not a book that can be read by everyone. Though I think everyone should be thoroughly educated about suicide and mental illnesses, and be taught how to cope or talk to suicidal people, this book can be heavy. Regardless of what your opinion may be about suicide, it is a very sensitive topic, so I implore fellow readers to talk to someone that you trust if the book upsets you or burdens you.
Though it isn’t a multifaceted discussion on suicide, I Was Here is an exploration of the pain of a girl who is confronted with the death of someone who meant the world to her. For this, it is worth reading, and as I have said, death narratives are complicated and are always read with subjectivity. However, I did not find I Was Here particularly enjoyable nor emotionally evocative. I felt unmoved – not because I am stoic in the face of such topics, but because this book lacked a bit of everything to truly deliver on a touching, moving book about suicide, loss, and pain. A disappointing read, but I will still give Forman’s other books a go in the future.
Book Name: I Was Here
Author: Gayle Forman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
As it seems relevant, if you are struggling or know of someone who is struggling with depression and suicide, please seek help. Here are some links that may be helpful to you:
- Help with suicidal thoughts and feelings
- Coping with suicidal thoughts
- Overcoming feelings of hopelessness
- Counselling a friend
- Talking to someone about their mental illness