“Seems to me, we all have these places, like rooms, deep inside us where we lock away everything we can’t or don’t want to face. Some of us have something so big, so terrifying inside us that it takes up a whole room. I reckon ignoring that thing only feeds it, making it grow so huge that it spills out of the room to search us out, sucking up all our light and joy as it goes.” We often talk about catharsis in terms of its benefits, and the good that comes of opening up things held tightly inside. We talk about the relief, the release, the freedom that comes with letting go. But we don’t always talk about the process, how hard it is to let things out, how it can feel more painful than anything else. We don’t always talk about how much it goes against the grain to fight our own defences, like resisting the urge to clamp down on a wound and watching it bleed out instead. When Pan Harper arrives at her foster home, she is holding her past tightly inside, wrapped up in layers of anger, pain, and denial. She wears her distrust like armour, believing that to be open is to be vulnerable, to accept her situation is to negate everything she knows about her life. So she holds the world at bay with her aggression, her clothes, her black eye makeup. And she clings to her memories, or rather, the version of events her memory chooses to retain. Pan’s Whisper is the story of just what it takes to open up, and to realise that the truth is not always what we believe it to be.From the outset, Pan’s anger is palpable. Her voice is hard and clear in the short, blunt sentences as she relates her arrival at the McMinn’s home and her start at a new school. Yet from beneath this, through the fragments of information she reveals about her childhood, her pain seeps through, raw and stark. While Pan fiercely pushes away those around her, as a reader it’s hard not to want to draw closer, to sense that she is damaged and needs to be loved. Honestly, when Smocker makes his first appearance around page 21, I was already fighting a lump in my throat and wiping my eyes. Pan’s unfolding is told from her own perspective, the letters she writes to her older sister Morgan and fragments of the past where Morgan appears. The pieces come together gradually, the past layering with the present, to bring the full picture of Pan’s history into focus. It’s not always easy to read. It’s occasionally confronting and often painful. But the clearer the image of Pan’s life becomes, the more emotionally engaging the story grows. One of the themes that runs throughout Pan’s Whisper is that of family – what it means to us individually and how that definition can change and expand. This was definitely one of my favourite aspects of the story, especially how Lawson developed the relationship between Pan and Morgan through their respective memories of their Mum. The complex bond between the sisters rang true for me and was incredibly moving. Having two protective older sisters myself, the difficulty of Morgan’s position and her courage was really resonant, along with Pan’s need to reconcile the versions of Morgan that existed in her memories and in reality. While the story is pretty emotionally intense, and deals with some tough subjects, it’s prevented from being overwhelmingly heavy by the style it’s related in. Lawson’s writing is clear and understated, and the emotion bleeds through without the need for overblown emo-prose. Pan’s voice feel authentic, and there is a distinctly Australian style to the dialogue and he interactions between the teenagers. While I occasionally find some high school settings in US YA hard to get a handle on, this felt familiar and realistic to me. A very small exception to this was the role Hunter played. I loved him as a character, and the subtle way Lawson approached the tension between he and Pan, yet I have to admit that occasionally I found the parallels in their situations to feel a little too.. coincidental? The fact that two people feeling similar pain might be drawn to each other is fair enough, but I don’t necessarily think his backstory was pivotal to Pan’s being unlocked. That said, the climax and ending of Pan’s Whisper were brilliant. I read the final few chapters with my heart in my throat, half afraid, half already heartbroken, completely invested. It was powerful and honest and basically the perfect note to end on. Pan’s Whisper is a strong, gorgeous book that backs quite the punch. This is contemporary Aussie YA on its game: honest and achy and unflinching. Read it. Thank you to the lovely Shirley Marr for proving a copy of Pan’s Whisper. No vegemite scrolls or cat-shaped cakes were exchanged in return for this review Although I’m pretty sure she owes me a dink on her BMX.This review also appears on Shirley Marr's supercool blog, where a copy of Pan's Whisper is up for grabs! Go join the party!