Publication Date: September 11, 2012
Format: ARC, 341 pages
RATING: 5 out of 5 Stars
After his older brother dies in Iraq, Matt makes a discovery that rocks his beliefs about strength, bravery, and honor in this page-turning debut.
Ever since his brother, T.J., was killed in Iraq, Matt feels like he’s been sleepwalking through life — failing classes, getting into fights, and avoiding his dad’s lectures about following in his brother’s footsteps. T.J.’s gone, but Matt can’t shake the feeling that if only he could get his hands on his brother’s stuff from Iraq, he’d be able to make sense of his death. But as Matt searches for answers about T.J.’s death, he faces a shocking revelation about T.J.’s life that suggests he may not have known T.J. as well as he thought. What he learns challenges him to stand up to his father, honor his brother’s memory, and take charge of his own life. With compassion, humor, and a compelling narrative voice, E. M. Kokie explores grief, social mores, and self-discovery in a provocative first novel.
The Gist: Matt is a mess; between dealing with the grief of losing his brother, TJ to the on-going difficulty of living with his father, some days, Matt can no longer tell which way is up. Added to that emotional upheaval and turmoil is a burgeoning relationship with his best friend that Matt could no longer ignore. Seven months after burying what was left of his brother, he's overwhelmed by anger and loneliness seemingly beyond relief.
When his brother's footlockers showed up, it felt like he was losing his brother all over again. Opening the locks was like opening up a side of him that he never knew. The discovery that he didn't really know him was like salt to his already festering wounds. Betrayed and angry, Matt set out on a journey that began with love letters exchanged between his brother and a person Matt never knew. What he discovered would be a catalyst to the changes he needed to do in order to honour the memory of a fallen soldier and to help the family he left behind.
This review will fail to convey how I felt after reading this book. I was destroyed; and much like Matt, I felt like I was grieving for the loss of a life cut short. But in my case, I'm grieving for the ending of this book. It was hard to put this down after it was over. I felt like I missed a whole lifetime - missed knowing a person because I read too fast.
TJ had so much to live for - so much to look forward to. Bound by the honour and obligation of serving his country, he chose to fulfill that responsibility rather than face the future with his loved ones. I mean, who could blame him? At the end of it all, he followed his heart. Unfortunately, that led him to being blown to bits. The ugly realities of war.
EM Kokie's writing captured the heartbreak of grief, made even more powerful by Matt's voice. His anger and sadness leapt off the pages and the betrayal that he felt with the things he found out about his brother. It was just...heartache all around. And even if the ending left a lot to be hopeful for, I wasn't satisfied. I needed to read TJ's story, need to feel what he felt when he realized he was in love. I needed to see the desperation every time he had to leave that person. A soldier's life is not easy, it's lonely and ripe with peril.
Ultimately though, Curtis is the one who cut me to pieces. I don't think I could ever recover from his heartache. He's one of those characters who'd lodge right into your heart like a splinter; buried deep that all you'd feel is the constant ache. I think this is the first time that I've been so affected by a secondary character. But I can't help it. He's the one I can't forget from this book. I don't know why I felt so much for Curtis. In a way, he's like a close relative who's suffering deeply and you want to help him but you don't know how. But he's very good at hiding his emotions - he looks strong from the outside but you're almost sure he's a mess inside. I want to wish him well, want him to feel happy again but it seems impossible somehow.
VERDICT: EM Kokie's debut novel was a mine of explosive, emotional, heart wrenching drama. This book will stay with me for a long time and it's not only because it dealt with the difficulty of grief, it's mostly because her characters are unforgettable. She gave a voice to a boy who had to fight for every single breath, every single will to go on living when he felt the severity of wanting to give up. This author is unreal, considering she's a newbie. I've never had a book affect me so deeply and in a level of empathy even I, could never understand.
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