As the bookshop owner located a copy of I’ll Give You the Sun she obviously felt bound to advise me that it was ‘young adult fiction’. I took a short breath, paused, then bought a different book. What judgement! What prejudice! Fortunately I’m not constant in my literary chauvinism so within 24 hours I had bought the book and within days had finished it.
I’ll Give You the Sun is a wonderful book. As I got closer to the end of the novel, I realised that it actually, literally made me happy. I discovered a smile on my face as I sped through the last chapters; I was totally immersed in the lives and loves of Noah and Jude, the twin siblings at the heart of the story. The last time I had such a warm attachment to a book and its characters was quite possibly, that’s right, when I was a teenager. Yet, there is nothing juvenile about the story line or strength of emotions told by Jandy Nelson.
The narrative is relayed from the alternate perspectives of Noah at 13 and Jude at 16. This allows the story to unfold in a non-linear way and partly explains why the book is such a page turner. Noah’s chapters often introduce events – at times cataclysmic- while Jude’s version told two years later allows the ramifications to fully unfold. The tragedy at the centre of the story provides an anchor for the twins’ perspectives on their lives.
We learn very early on that Noah is gay. He is also a very talented painter and his obsession with colour and ‘mind-painting’ allow Jandy Nelson to beautifully depict the intensity of his emotions.
…. Then the colours start flooding into me: not through my eyes but right through my skin replacing blood and bone, muscle and sinew, until I am redorangebluegreenpurpleyellowredorangebluegreenpurpleyellow. Brian pulls away and looks at me…. It makes my chest ache with joy; horses-plunging-into-rivers-joy… I think the heart of every living thig on earth is beating in my body.
The fact that Noah’s sexuality is explored as fully as Jude’s in itself makes this a worthy read. As a teenager, my top picks were any of July Blume’s books and the Sweet Valley High series. While still overwhelmingly hetero-normative, at least Judy Blume’s protagonists offered girls a more expansive version of ‘reality’ than the Sweet Valley High books, which in retrospect were just trojan horses of self-loathing for not being blond, leggy and Californian. The characters in I’ll Give You the Sun are flawed and quirky (although still attractive in an emo way) and so, I imagine, provide more scope for teen self-identification.
Meanwhile, Jude’s life is dictated by superstition. She keeps an onion in her pocket to ward off serious illness, she converses with her dead grandmother about ways to reverse her and her family’s fortunes: ‘to bring back joy to a grieving family, sprinkle three tablespoons of crushed eggshells over every meal’. These aphorisms obviously can’t tame her guilt and fear, but they do afford her some feeling of control.
Nelson has beautifully captured the needy and tortuous vagaries of being a teenager: moments of the sublime alternate with days of despair. These depictions though never felt over the top – I had huge empathy for the sweep of emotions that the twins constantly felt.
What happens to these emotional pinnacles and nadirs? As we grow older our feelings become more nuanced and less stark. I guess plateaus of feelings make life more manageable and easier to navigate. I was grateful to be reminded of how intense life was as a teenager, even if it also made me a little wistful.