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Hilary T. Smith
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I'll Be There

I'll Be There - Holly Goldberg Sloan 4.5 stars (Brace yourself for the gushing - apparently my brain was having a fire sale on similes and adjectives.)Books like this make me feel so grateful that I am a reader. Imagining that I was born without a propensity for reading and/or taught to love it tends to put me in a panicky tailspin, at the thought of all the characters, places and emotional experiences I would have missed, had I not been so inclined to pick up a book whenever possible. And as far as emotional experiences go, this one was like a small wrecking-ball swinging though me. ”His mind was flooded. He’d seen pictures of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and that’s how he felt. His life was now underwater and, even if the tide somehow receded, everything that he had was now damaged beyond repair.” “I’ll Be There” is a powerful and unsettling read, particularly throughout the early descriptions of Sam and his younger brother Riddle’s life on the road with their mentally unstable father, Clarence. Told in third person omniscient, the story at first feels slightly detached, as if the reader is being held at bay to watch as the characters and plot unfold. However, this particular style is employed to great effect as the characters each form a thread of the story, pulling tighter and tighter into a delicate snare of words; a little noose constricting around the heart. Honestly, there were parts of this book when I had to shut it and remind myself it wasn’t actually happening, because I felt like I was trying to breathe with a weight on my chest. I wanted to reach into the pages and make everything okay. When Sam encounters Emily Bell at a college-town church, they experience a moment of connection which will change the direction of their lives. From this point, and through his contact with Emily and her family, Sam begins to become visible after a lifetime of remaining unseen. He begins to form connections, experience a part of life he has never known. Juxtaposed with Clarence’s mounting paranoia and lurking menace, the tension ratchets up steadily. Small, tender moments are incised with sharp shadows of foreboding. The gradually interlocking sections of the story, while gritty and harsh, are also shot through with something kind of.. magical. (Which, judging from reviews, will either sit well with you... or it won’t). I don’t mean to infer that this is magical realism – this story is nothing if not all too possible in terms of Sam and Riddle’s brutal childhood – but there is something almost fable-like in the way it is written. (If I think of a better word, I’ll come back here and edit). Stylistically, the book reminded me in parts of the 2006 film ‘Stranger Than Fiction’, in terms of the narration and the sense of overarching purpose, the fragments that snap together to form a fractured, yet beautiful whole. Personally, I really liked the slightly whimsical element to story that tempered the darker themes and events. The plot did take a direction I was not expecting, but once I had adjusted to this particular choice I settled in and let the story take me where it would, strictly realistic or not. (I find that I’m prepared to suspend my belief on a case-by-case basis – generally, this is illogically determined by how much I love the characters and the writing.)Due to the style of the prose, and the spare dialogue, we never get completely close to the characters. We don't exactly live in their world, or walk in their shoes. Instead, we are shown small snapshots and glimpses into their lives. In spite of this, I still felt heavily invested in them. If anything, the fleeting insights into Riddle’s thoughts, his drawings, Sam’s attempts to keep his brother protected and Emily’s tenacious hope had me in a kind of chokehold, and I grew to love them.I would like to have seen more of the interactions between Sam and Emily. The way in which their connection was described was well suited to the overall tone and style of the book (alluded to, rather than explicitly spelled out) – but I kind of wish Holly Goldberg Sloan had given them more on-page moments and dialogue. Regardless, the portions of the book where they were together and their respective feelings were tender and bittersweet.One of the elements I particularly loved was the use of colour throughout the story. I am intrigued about the recurring orange motif, the colour appearing with increasing frequency throughout the climax of the novel. Beyond the possible significance, which I’m still wondering about, it also ties in beautifully with the cover art. I wish I could be more articulate about why I loved this book so much. The writing, deceptively simple, yet quietly and devastatingly expressive, has left me feeling woefully inadequate to the task of reviewing it. All I can really say is that reading 'I'll Be There' was an experience both painful and precious. It’s exquisitely written, moving, harrowing, heartbreaking. And I loved it. If I could sum up I’ll Be There with a picture, it would be this one (from tumblr). Dark, beautiful, hopeful: