From Neil Smith, author of the award-winning, internationally acclaimed story collection Bang Crunch, comes a dark but whimsical debut novel about starting over in the afterlife in the vein of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.
When Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple wakes up in heaven, the eighth-grade science geek thinks he died of a heart defect at his school. But soon after arriving in this hereafter reserved for dead thirteen-year-olds, Boo discovers he’s a ‘gommer’, a kid who was murdered. What’s more, his killer may also be in heaven. With help from the volatile Johnny, a classmate killed at the same school, Boo sets out to track down the mysterious Gunboy who cut short both their lives.
In a heartrending story written to his beloved parents, the odd but endearing Boo relates his astonishing heavenly adventures as he tests the limits of friendship, learns about forgiveness and, finally, makes peace with the boy he once was and the boy he can now be.
There’s been a lot of comparisons made about this book. I’ve heard it referenced as part Lovely Bones, part Lord of the Flies, but to me, Boo is so much more. A beautifully imaginative journey of humour, sadness loss and joy, I found I couldn’t put it down. Smith has created an incredible world – or after-world, if you will – that explores how we build our often tenuous connections to one another with a different perspective.
Oliver, or “Boo” is an intriguing protagonist. While he is unfailingly honest and practical, he is also unknowingly humourous – I loved his renaming of “God” as Zig, something far more relaxed and comfortable for conversation. It’s through Boo that we begin to explore and discover the afterlife, where everyone is 13 (at least for fifty more years) and individuals are segregated by nationality. Can I just say here the I want to see what the Canadian compound looks like, and what items are and are not permitted to arrive by Zig? I’m completely intrigued by the concept of an afterlife where broken things repair themselves, and items from the living world appear – but only if they are deemed useful (clothing, typewriters, etc.).
Relationships are an integral part of this after-world, and it’s through Boo’s missives to his parents that begin to see how the lonely boy on Earth begins to find acceptance and affection from others. The playing field is much more level now, and it warmed my heart to read Boo’s observations of his friends’ behaviour, all the while knowing that they cared for him and wanted to protect him (sometimes from himself). I also loved the friendship and connections between Boo and Johnny, and how being friends gave each boy the strength and permission to accept what had happened to them in the living world. Each boy was so very different, and the details of the shooting in the living world (no spoilers here) spoke volumes about each person’s place in that world. It broke my heart a little to see how Boo began to transition over the course of the book, still retaining the essence of who he was in his letters, but knowing that he was changing and distancing himself from who he was on Earth as time moved on.
The world-building is fresh and vibrant and completely unlike anything else I’ve read recently regarding Heaven or any form thereof. While the themes discussed are serious and dark – school shootings, bullying, mental illness, suicide – they are also realistic concerns for students, and they are mixed with the prosaic. The timelines of this book worked for me as well, starting in the 70’s before technology and cell phones, during a time when communication was done via letters and long conversations, by phone or in person. Boo’s journey spans the decades, and while he may remain thirteen, he does mature and grow and move on, much like everyone in the living world. I will admit to having tears in my eyes during Boo and Johnny’s last conversation, as you realize just how much they needed each other while still becoming the people they were meant to be.
One other note: the author has spoken in interviews about his feelings over his brother’s death when he was just a child, and about his time on campus at the École Polytechnique de Montréal that horrible day in December, 1989, when Marc Lepine shot and killed fourteen female engineering students. These are both very traumatic experiences, and there are strong echoes of these events in this novel, intentional or otherwise. I was at university myself when the shootings happened, and I had flashbacks of the tension, nervousness and sadness surrounding those days as I read this book.
Boo isn’t a conventional read by any stretch, but it’s compelling and witty and heartbreaking all at the same time. Smith has managed to create a timeless story of the feelings, issues and experiences of a thirteen year old and transform them into something much more. By all rights, Boo should become a modern classic like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and The Catcher in the Rye,
Boo by Neil Smith was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. It is available now for purchase from your favourite online or bricks and mortar bookstore. Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House – ISBN: 9780804171366, 310 pages.