Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
Jam has been taken by her family to The Wood Barn, a boarding school in Vermont for fragile teens. After losing her British boyfriend, Reeve, Jam has been unable to function at all. She just wants to be left alone with her grief and loss. Jam spends her days sleeping and thinking about Reeve and how in only a few weeks their relationship grew into love only to have him die suddenly. At her new school, Jam finds herself selected for a small and exclusive English class where they will read one author for the entire semester. They are also given journals to record their feelings and ideas, old books that look ancient and valuable. As Jam starts to write in hers for the first time, she is transported to a world where Reeve is still alive, where they can spend a brief time together, and where they can relive their experiences with one another. All of the students in the class are having this experience and together they decide to only write in the journals twice a week to make them last, because no one knows what happens to this strange world of the journal when the pages run out. By the end of their experiences in the place they call Belzhar, Jam must face the truths of her loss and her grief.
Wolitzer has earned acclaim as the author of adult literary novels and her short works of fiction. Those skills really show here as she turns what could have been a novel about teenage love and loss into a beautiful and compelling work of magical realism. When I started the novel, I had not expected the journals to be anything more than paper, so that inclusion of a fantasy element thoroughly changed the novel for me. It made it richer, more of an allegory, and lifted it to another level.
Jam, the protagonist, is a girl who does not open up readily. The book is told in her voice and yet readers will not know her thoroughly until the end of the book. It is because of Wolitzer’s skill as a writer that readers may not even realize until the twist comes that the book has even more to reveal. Jam is also not particularly likeable, and I appreciate that. Instead she is lonely, prickly, eager to please and complex. That is what makes the novel work.
This is a particularly deep and unique novel for teens that reveals itself slowly and wondrously on the page. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from copy received from Dutton.