Once again blending multiple story strands that transcend time and place, Grasshopper Jungle author Andrew Smith tells the story of 15-year-old Ariel, a refugee from the Middle East who is the sole survivor of an attack on his small village. Now living with an adoptive family in Sunday, West Virginia, Ariel’s story of his summer at a boys’ camp for tech detox is juxtaposed against those of a schizophrenic bomber and the diaries of a failed arctic expedition from the late nineteenth century. Oh, and there’s also a depressed bionic reincarnated crow. – [X]
Okay, full disclosure, The Alex Crow is the first book I’ve read by Andrew Smith *pauses for the gasps of horror* and yes, since then, I’ve been eyeing Grasshopper Jungle. (It’s hard to pick the cover I like best. Since, you know, bugs. *shudder*)
Anyway, about the book. This is the part where I try to find the appropriate adjective and go with it for the rest of the review, but the problem is this book kind of defies any singular way of describing it. There’s a lot going on in it. Part of it is science-fiction, part of it reads like realistic fiction, and for once, it’s not the speculative side of things that caught my interest. Yes, the “melting man” and the “depressed reincarnated crow” all have interesting storylines, but Ariel’s narrative rise clear and bright above all of the others. It’s quite striking because Ariel, who has suffered great trauma, does not talk much.
However, Smith’s choice to make him the primary voice of The Alex Crow means that Ariel gets to convey things to us the readers (and indirectly, to his adopted brother Max) that other characters in his vicinity do not get to hear:
I did not speak because I was unhappy and I was afraid. I was sorry for where I came from, and for what happened to so many of my friends and family members. I was sad to be an orphan– worse, a sole survivor– even if the Burgesses did graciously make me their awkward second son, Max’s non-twinned twin. And it made me feel terrible how much Max hated me, too.
I didn’t talk because I wouldn’t tell anyone about what happened to me with the orphans in the tent city. But most of all was the feeling that I didn’t belong here, as much as everyone had seemed so intent (and self-satisfied) with the notion of “saving” Ariel: and that I would never come to understand all of the nonsense that America presented me with. — Page 32.
And really, that’s what I loved about the book. Smith is honest and cutting in his evaluation of what it means when America “saves” someone, what it means when a saviour compares the “victim” to a dog he once killed, or even what the future holds for you when your place of refuge is called “fantastic”:
Think about what [fantastic] really means: unreal, imagined. Why would anyone think fantastic was a good omen of my future. — Page 248.
Even as Ariel is unpacking everything that happened in his “other life”, we are also watching him be exactly what he is: a teenaged boy. We see him interact with Max and the others at the camp, we see him struggle to fit in and also want to stand out, we see him learning and unlearning things constantly. Smith balances this issue of having to grow up too fast and still being a kid anyway with great tact. Even if there is a suicidal crow in the mix, it all feels real and true, and seems (to me) to come from a place of compassion. To say that it’s been a long time since I’ve read a well-written “refugee” character/narrative is an understatement. I have been sick of books that deal with kids’ traumatic lives while they are in a different country, only to present North America (minus Mexico, of course) as the default happy ending. I love that we get Ariel’s strange life after the so-called happy ending. Refreshing, I tell you.
I think the only issue I had with the book is that there weren’t enough female characters, and none of them felt as real as Ariel felt. That said, in this particular case, it feels a little like I’m complaining that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein does not have better female characters, when the entire novel reads like a criticism of the patriarchy … as does The Alex Crow in a lot of ways*. (Still. No one would complain if there were more female characters.)
Basically, yes, recommended**!
And here, let me leave you with yet another bit I loved:
The closer we got to the sprawling city of tents, the more the noise and clamor of the people inside it rose like smoke from a fire, or flies from a garbage heap …
I asked one of the guards what UNHCR stood for. His answer was, “Hey! You speak English really good!”
“It can’t possibly stand for that,” I said.
The guard smiled and told me this was the United Nations Refugee Agency.
I didn’t really know what he meant by refugee. Were we looking for refuge; or were we running away from something, so we didn’t care where we ended up, refuge or not? — Page 189.
Story Review Short: I was given a review copy of The Alex Crow from Penguin Canada but I liked it enough to buy my own copy.
**No, really, pay attention to the footnote above.