Thursday, December 21, 2017

Review: THE SHADOWS WE KNOW BY HEART by Jennifer Park

I reviewed The Shadows We Know by Heart (Simon Pulse) by East Texas's Jennifer Park for Lone Star Literary Life. It is pure magic; I loved this YA debut from the very first page, and read it in one sitting.

Jennifer Park
The Shadows We Know by Heart
Simon Pulse
Hardcover, 978-1-4814-6351-9, (also available as an e-book), 304 pgs., $17.99
March 14, 2017

Sixteen-year-old Leah Roberts lives in a broken family at the edge of the East Texas piney woods. Ten years ago, her family has been shattered in the aftermath of the death, in those woods, of her brother Sam. Leah’s father is Pastor Roberts, and he has a lot of rules (no lip gloss, no bikinis); one of those rules is never, ever go into the woods. But the forest is the only place Leah can let down her emotional walls, be herself. “This forest is my religion, the towering cathedral of trees my church, and I’m reborn every time I leave,” Leah tells us.

The forest is Leah’s comfort, both freedom and sanctuary, and holds her biggest secret. “Heavy steps echo through the trees, the surefooted sound of creatures that have nothing to fear in this world,” Leah says. Would that that were true. “I’ve watched something that technically doesn’t exist come and go in the forest behind our home for years.” Leah has never told anyone because she’s pretty sure they’d stop listening at “Bigfoot.” But the morning she first sees the human boy with the Sasquatch, she knows she has a difficult decision to make. “The walls are falling down around me, pushing me closer to the human embodiment of everything I love about the forest. Leah is gone,” she thinks, “and in her place is a girl walking with a boy who feels like home, the way it was before everything fell apart.”

The Shadows We Know by Heart is the debut young-adult novel from Jennifer Park. Published by Simon Pulse, it’s labeled science fiction/fantasy, solely because of Bigfoot. Sasquatch. A family of them. Some of you will protest this. I take no position on the existence of Bigfoot, but, in an unlikely turn of events, I fell in love with this book.

Beautifully designed inside and out, The Shadows We Know by Heart is both spooky and beguiling, finding a difficult equilibrium of comedy and tragedy. Parks’ rendering of rural Texas teenagers is spot-on. I used to be one of them, and I feel I know these people. The story is told in Leah’s first-person narration, her voice distinctive and authentic. She’s smart and funny; suspicious of, and confused by, the adults in her life; and flustered by boys. Leah is a rebel flirting with mutiny, and totally likeable.

The Shadows We Know by Heart asks tough questions about violence and vengeance, retribution and regret, atonement and forgiveness, justice and mercy, secrets and guilt. What is the meaning of family? What do we owe the living and the dead, and if those obligations appear to conflict—what then? What does it mean to be civilized, and who decides? What does it mean to be human, and are humans intrinsically worthier than other animals? Leah must reconcile freedom and responsibility, and make choices as she struggles with identity, attempting to escape those imposed upon her.

The quick, steady pace effortlessly holds our attention; flashbacks foreshadow, adding to the escalating sense of dread; and the plot delivers multiple twists before accelerating into a shocking climax. Met by foreboding and adrenaline, then thoroughly charmed, all on the first page, I read The Shadows We Know by Heart in one sitting. Park delivers thrilling, mysterious, magical moments; the truly scary; the viscerally creepy; exquisite tension; and sweet first love.

Originally published by Lone Star Literary Life.

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