Nothing by Janne Teller
Before you open this book, make sure your schedule for the next few hours in clear. Seriously.
Pierre Anthon left school abruptly after announcing, “Nothing matters.” Instead of going to school, he climbed into a plum tree and called to the other teens in his class, mocking them for still trying to conform to a world where nothing actually matters. After awhile, the others in his class decided that they must prove him wrong and demonstrate that there are things in life that matter. So they built a heap of meaning, filled with items that meant a lot to them. At first they volunteered to put items onto the pile, but when that stopped working, it was decided that the last person to put something on the pile would decide what the next person must add. As this progresses, the tension mounts as one student must decide for the next just how far this will go and just how much meaning their effort will have.
Written in stark, haunting prose, this novel starts with a slow buildup and then becomes impossible to put down as one character after the other makes horrific decisions. It is a story about what matters in life, but also about the meaningless that becomes imbued with too much meaning as well. The book is heartbreaking, strange and completely riveting.
Translated from Danish, this book is markedly not set in America and keeps its Danish place names and other touches. The translation is done with great skill, allowing readers to realize that it is set elsewhere but also keeping the all-important connection with the characters alive.
The novel is told from the point of view of Agnes, a girl who only has to give her new sandals to the pile. This perspective is perfectly rendered as Agnes is witness to the horror, completely involved, but remains apart and an observer because it does not affect her as deeply as some of the other students. Teller creates characters that we all recognize, but they surprise us with their reactions, their strength, and their fragility. She puts the characters in a mix of peer pressure, violence and existential crisis, revealing much about each of them.
Highly recommended, this is one of the deepest, cruelest, most remarkable books I have read recently. It is filled with beauty, tragedy and horror but offers meaning and plenty of fodder for discussion. Appropriate for ages 13-16.
Reviewed from copy received from publisher.