Book review

John Green is back and, naturally, YA readers will find their hearts jumping again

Teenage detectives solve crimes while fighting mental illness and writing ‘Star Wars’ fan fiction.

Like his previous bestselling novels, which explore teenagers coming to terms with their own limitations and becoming more aware about the ways of the world, John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down tells the story of a girl who is uncomfortable in her own skin. Aza Holmes is a teenager in Indianapolis who thinks she is the sidekick in her own story and that somebody else is running the show. For instance, she feels it’s the millions of microbes in her gut that are in charge of her body and not her.

Aza’s best friend Daisy Ramirez is a witty Star Wars fan fiction writer who works at Chuck E Cheese after school hours. She coaxes Aza into taking up the case of the missing fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett so that they can win the cash reward and have an easier life. Aza knows Pickett’s son Davis from “sad camp”, a grief camp for children who’ve lost a parent.

This is not a story featuring a detective like Sherlock Holmes, whose disorders give him greater power to solve mysteries and crimes. This is a story about a detective whose mental illness gets in the way of the detective work. Nor is this a story about the triumph of strength over weakness at the end. Instead, it tells you:

“The problem with happy endings…is that they’re not really happy or not really endings…You pick your endings and your beginnings. You get to pick the frame, you know? Maybe you don’t choose what’s in the picture, but you decide on the frame.”

This book makes you feel all the things that you can expect from a John Green book, but it struggles to pick up pace. It is packed with Green’s favourite motifs which have now turned into clichés: an affliction, picnics, lying on the grass, stars, a “meet-cute” (that pop-culture thing where a future couple meets for the first time) a funny friend, teenage turbulence, grief, and an American city described only the way Green can. It tugs at your heart strings like The Fault in Our Stars did, and makes you jump through mystery hoops like Paper Towns did, but it falls short of recreating the magic of these books. The long wait is partially to blame for this underwhelming feeling despite the strong and dark subject matter.

John Green reading the first chapter of "Turtles All the Way Down".

Love, friendships and fan fiction

This novel is a modern tale of love and loss, with one of the most memorable friendships of YA fiction. Here, technology becomes more intimate than physical intimacy. Life, romantic love, ways of seeing and feeling have all changed since Green’s last book, published in 2012, and the author is not one to fall behind on that note. The unique aspect of this novel is that its narrative explores the world of the internet and the different ways in which we use it.

Aza and her mother keep a backup of photos taken from her deceased father’s phone, while Davis gets obsessed with distant stars believing that the light years between a particular star and the earth meant that we are really seeing a star from a past when his mother was still alive. He blogs incessantly about his feelings, picking out quotes from The Tempest. Daisy has fantastic internet-stalking skills (hashtag millennial detectives) and writes equally fantastic Star Wars fan fiction (I wouldn’t mind if Green turns this into his next project).

We all need a Wookiee Chewbacca’s romantic adventures with a human set in a galaxy far far away. When Aza is scared of kissing Davis for the fear of catching infection, video-chatting becomes a form of intimacy for them. But unlike Green’s previous work, here the central focus isn’t romantic love. But it is this love between friends that constantly helps Aza cope better with her condition.

Daisy goes from being a chit chat-hard working girl to an annoyance to her pillar of strength through the course of the book. It is this redeemable manner in which the characters rise to the occasion that Green knows how to portray best.

At one point Aza says, “I think maybe I’m like the White River. Non-navigable.”

Daisy responds, “But that’s not the point of the story, Holmesy. The point of the story is that they built the city anyway, you know? You work with what you have. They had this shit river, and they managed to build an okay city around it. Not a great city, maybe. But not bad. You’re not the river. You’re the city.”

Mental lllness. Of course

In this book, Green bares open his personal struggle with mental illness. “I can say what it’s like more than what it is,” Green says in his video blog and in the book. He writes, “Maybe we invented metaphor as a response to pain. Maybe we needed to give shape to the opaque, deep-down pain that evades both sense and senses.”

Green has managed to do more than providing metaphors for his pain. He has poured it into the pages of this book in the form of Aza’s struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder. Spiral after spiral takes us down into Aza’s mind and slowly, you become aware of a certain privilege you have in life – the privilege of control. Nobody is in control of everything all the time, but whenever you feel you’re not, remember Aza and her struggle. You will no longer wonder why this book took Green the longest to write among all his works.

Talking about their mental illness is one of the things with which those suffering from it struggle, and so has Green. This is reflected in the long monologues running inside Aza’s mind whenever she experiences an anxiety attack. Every single sentence of every monologue sends waves of panic up the reader’s brain as well. Green really wants you to feel what Aza is feeling, something that he has felt all his life.

It is in these pages you find yourself as helpless as Aza. The spiral keeps tightening around her and there is nothing the reader can do. You will not get a happy ending either. Mental conditions do not get magically cured or disappear. You just learn to live with it. You go on with your life.

John Green discussing his mental illness.

The original touch

Green returns to his solid old form in the final four chapters. It’s almost as though the first twenty chapters were written by a different writer – someone carrying the burden of doing justice to Aza’s character and her story. The last four, in contrast, are by a John Green who might have written them while humming a Bob Dylan song and regaining his breezy self. The book is filled with memorable quotes which will undoubtedly find a life on the internet, in school notebooks, and in screenshots.

The title is based on the anecdote about the paradox of existence in which an old lady tells a scientist at a cosmology lecture that the earth rests on the back of a giant turtle. When the scientist asks what the turtle stands on, she responds, “It is turtles all the way down.” Green suggests that the scientist and the old lady are both right. Yes, the world is based on a scientific understanding of its existence, but “the world is also the stories we tell about it.”

This is why Green’s fiction finds its way into the hands of readers of all ages. He not only depicts an illness with all its symptoms, but also finds a way to tell a story about it. This one, like all his books, serves up both torment and solace. Or, as John Green himself has written elsewhere, “it hurts, in a way language could not touch”.

Turtles All the Way Down, John Green, Penguin.

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