But sister, it's the opposite of hallelujahIt's the opposite of being youYou don't know 'cause it just passes right through youYou don't know what I'm going through So goes the title track of Jens Leckman’s 2005 EP, The Opposite of Hallelujah. It’s also one of two epigraphs that appear in Anna Jarzab’s sophomore novel, which shares the name. The song is deceptively upbeat, almost perky, yet the lyrics beautifully fit Jarzab’s contemplative and sincere novel about faith, grief and familial relationships. Unfortunately, my copy of The Opposite of Hallelujah had been left to languish on a stack of books I routinely pass over, mostly because my interest in reading it had waned due to my fairly lukewarm reaction to All Unquiet Things. Then Kelly’s thoughtful review over at Stacked prompted me to pick it up, which feels serendipitous in hindsight because (and I realise this is a big call to make in January) this may well be one of my favourite books of the year. This is a story about a teenage girl who’s sister returns home from a convent after eight years. Caro barely remembers her older sister living at the family home (there’s an eleven year age difference) and reacts with unsurprising apathy towards Hannah’s return. Virtually strangers now, Hannah’s vocation has been a source of confusion to Caro, and it’s compounded by Hannah’s unwillingness to explain why she has left the convent. When it becomes evident that Hannah is not coping and Caro begins to uncover a long buried secret, relationships are tested and Caro is compelled to address her own doubts about faith and religious belief. Granted, a book that deals substantially with questions of God, the universe and redemption is not everyone’s cup of tea, yet never did I feel that Jarzab’s novel was heavy-handed or didactic. The themes are complex yet well-explored, handled accessibly through Caro’s sharp and authentic voice. As a counter-balance to Hannah, who was a deeply religious child with an apparently natural inclination to piety, Caro is agnostic and favours a scientific approach to questions and reasoning. She has complicated feelings towards Hannah’s belief in her vocation, which results in her poor handling direct questions about her sister, to the point of effectively denying her existence. The Opposite of Hallelujah is a well written book; Jarzab’s confident and eloquent prose lends the novel a literary feel, while the realistic rendering of Caro’s voice serves as an effective medium for the profound subject matter. Caro’s characterisation is authentic and relatable: she’s sixteen, argues with her parents, behaves selfishly at times. While she’s a sympathetic character with a lot to deal with, Jarzab allows Caro to be flawed and make mistakes, to act insensitively. Jarzab’s dedication to portraying Caro as a realistic teen, and choosing to tell this story through the lens of Caro’s limited life-experience, makes for a strong arc in her character development. Caro’s progression throughout the novel is entirely believable, as she moves from a place of disinterest in her sister to an desire to understand and try to alleviate her pain. That relationship between Hannah and Caro is the crux of the novel: it’s a complicated and tense dynamic, frustrated by prolonged absence and wide disparity in viewpoints. Compounded by the fact that Hannah won’t talk about her sudden homecoming, and their parent’s well-meaning attempts to allow Hannah to adjust on her own terms without talking about anything, this relationship (or initial lack thereof) is the catalyst for Caro beginning to question her own belief system, and her subsequent emotional growth. On the other hand, Hannah’s descent into illness (physically, mentally and arguably spiritually) is depicted with painful honesty. While the reader experiences Hannah’s anguish secondhand through Caro, this makes it no less compelling, and Jarzab manages to convey her internal suffering both insightfully and powerfully – regardless of whether the reader can relate to her emotions. Interestingly, while it appears on the surface of things that this novel is about the conflict between science and spirituality, it’s actually more about their coexistence, and the way we internalise and deal with grief through various means. Jarzab subtly explores this idea through her use of art and science in the story, referencing the works of graphic artist M C Escher and noted cleric-scientists (Nicolaus Copernicus, Gregor Mendel etc). Framing much of this information in the context of conversations between Caro and Father Bob, a priest she is acquainted with, Jarzab allows Caro to express and explore her doubts and issues with the concepts of guilt, forgiveness and faith. Art is also used as a point of connection between Hannah and Caro, a tentatively extended invitation to rebuild their relationship. Similarly, Jarzab uses Caro’s interest and academic performance in science to investigate the idea of creation as a therapeutic act. Compelled to participate in a science fair, Caro – for complicated reasons – takes on an advanced project, one that pushes her beyond her realm of knowledge. This portrayal of Caro as a logical, driven young woman with a desire to succeed at what she sets out to do speaks to her characterisation throughout the story as a whole. While she is occasionally perceived as acting out, the petulant little sister, Caro is also a person with a great deal of determination, using what coping mechanisms she has to work through her difficult situation. The Opposite of Hallelujah’s supporting characters are strong and fully-realised, fleshing out the novel and Caro’s internal journey. Jarzab presents a refreshingly frank parent/child dynamic that develops as Caro herself matures and grows emotionally. Her relationship with her parents is pivotal in the story, and it’s especially pleasing to read two characters that have clearly distinct personalities, flaws and voices. It’s this attention to detail and careful construction of the secondary cast that give the novel a feeling of authenticity; they exist as part of the novel, rather than mere plot devices. There’s also a very nuanced portrayal of female friendship in the triumvirate of Caro, Reb and Erin. I particularly enjoyed the fact that while the girls were very different with a delicate balance of trust, and despite the natural tensions that emerged from time to time, it was a healthy and supportive network. And yes, there’s romance too. Jarzab handles this subplot well, it’s sweet and realistic and the complications are entirely believable as opposed to manufactured angst for the sake of drama. There’s a very cute moment with some Rube Goldberg machines (yes, really) which builds on the continued physics/science motif used throughout the novel. This is a solid contemporary novel with considerable depth of subject matter, without being overwhelmingly heavy in its execution. Definitely recommended if you’re looking for a well-written and balanced exploration of grief and faith from a slightly unusual angle. I still never told you about unstoppable sorrowYou still think I'm someone to look up toI still don't know anything about youIs it in you too?