I’ve thought before about putting some kind of disclaimer on this website that says No Spoiler Alert Zone – because I hate saying “spoiler alert” and I love talking about endings. So, you and everyone should be warned that I will feel free to spoil the endings of books, starting with this post.
As I started thinking about what to say about Year of the Beasts, I realized that I was being sucked into a vortex of dead siblings. Over the past few days I’ve read: Personal Effects by EM Kokie, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher, The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab, and (reread) Year of the Beasts. If you didn’t finish it, you don’t know that Year of the Beasts is about a dead sibling, but I actually think it reads much better if you know that, either rereading it, or just having it spoiled. About three-quarters (maybe more) through the book, Lulu and Tessa go on an ill-advised swim in a river, and both of them are sucked under the water. Jasper is able to save Tessa, but Lulu drowns. What we realize when this happens is that the graphic novel portions of the book are a fantasy version of Tessa’s life after Lulu’s death, as she deals with her tremendous survivor’s guilt, made so much more painful by the fact that the sisters have been rivals throughout the summer (btw, on my reread, I noticed that Castellucci foreshadows Lulu’s death in numerous ways, the most mundane–and therefore paradoxically most heartbreaking–is one page 4: as Tessa is arguing with her mother about bringing Lulu along to the fair, she says “I’m not my sister’s keeper”–a line which takes on a tremendous resonance on a second read).
Personal Effects is about Matt, a very angry teen whose brother died in Iraq. He goes looking for some closure about his brother’s death, only to find out that his brother had been hiding a whole other life with his male partner.
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece is a very strange companion to The Opposite of Hallelujah. It is about a (possibly Asperger’s) ten-year-old named James whose sister (one of twins) died five years earlier in a terrorist bombing in London. As in Opposite, James was too young to remember much about his sister and his family puts intense pressure on him to feel grief that he doesn’t really feel. Strangely, in Opposite, Caro’s sister doesn’t actually die, but Caro lies to her classmates that she is dead–in Mantelpiece, James’s sister is dead, and he lies to his classmates that she’s alive. Also, both are centered on religion, as James’s father blames Muslims at large for his daughter’s death, but James begins to develop a friendship with a Muslim girl.
So, enough of summary–what interested me about those three books is that in all three cases the older siblings are much older, and the reader does not get much chance to know any of them, even Hannah from Opposite who is actually alive. While there are plenty of valid reasons for each book to make this choice, it made it hard for me, as a reader, to care as much about the deaths. In Opposite, of course, there is also the death of Sabra, Hannah’s best friend, but here again we know almost nothing about her and her death works more as a piece of plot than an emotional statement. In Year of the Beasts, on the other hand, almost the whole prose portion of the novel is taken up by the relationship between Lulu and Tessa. What’s more, their relationship is very strained. You may have a different viewpoint on the sisters, since you have a sister two years younger, and (I have a feeling) may have had a bit more rivalry. For myself, I never really felt much rivalry in either direction (with my older or younger brother), so I could be wrong, but the intermingled love and competition between Tessa and Lulu felt very real to me, and it made Lulu’s death and Tessa’s grief (and therefore the entire GN section) much more powerful and heartbreaking.
I did notice as I reread Year of the Beasts that the narration has a sort of strangely distant quality to it – not quite allowing the reader the immediacy she might want – and I wonder if that’s what you found off-putting. But for me, the sibling rivalry, and the powerful take on grief was more than enough to get past that. I could say quite a bit more about Personal Effects, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, and The Opposite of Hallelujah, but this post is long enough for now, so I’ll end here. I hope that helps if you try to give Year of the Beasts another try.