My testament to how much I liked this book should be in the beginnings of tears in my eyes and the ache in my chest. I liked this book a LOT. I should, however, state a disclaimer about how I don't know any people who have Alzheimer's, nor am I a mixed race person who has to deal with it on a daily basis, so any glaring issues concerning faux paus of any of those things they may have passed me by.
Nick as a character is someone I want to hold up and say "this, do it like this." The balance of immaturity and being genuinely likeable, I have found, is not an easy one to strike, something that I've now realized after reading so many children's books in a row. Oftentimes I have to stop myself from my criticism and say "okay, it's just a kid." I never felt that with Nick. It's not like he doesn't act like a child, his 12-year-oldness is an important aspect of the book, because it is the core of his denial. He's the one who sees the truth, everyone has given up/has misdiagnosed/etc. etc. It's a very me vs. the world viewpoint that I certainly have horrible flashbacks to, and I definitely related to him (or at least my 12 year old self did) in that respect. But at no point did I feel like rolling my eyes and giving him a shake, it was all universally understandable, and the fundamental point of the fact that he was struggling against a diagnosis that people were not giving him a full picture of is honestly dealt with toward the end of the book, and his acknowledgment of that I thought was a good point to make.
I thought that his awkward conflicts with his father were really well handled, as it's clear from the book that they are both intensely hurting, though, again, Nick's level of self-involvement and self-focus stop him from understanding that particularly early on, and written in a way that didn't make me want to sigh a lot and groan. Plus, the interesting sidestep with Nick already knowing about his African-American heritage while realizing that his chance to learn more about his East German side might be crumbling before his eyes was a nice twist. Though I did make some suspicious eyes at the "I don't fit into the stereotypes" trope, because you have to acknowledge that the people who do are people too (and that you're not completely separate from them just because you don't fit stereotype) and I didn't feel that the book made that point clear enough for my taste. But admittedly these things were not the bulk focus of the book and were handled well enough for me not to get irritated by them (as an Asian American). There are definitely portions that are plain and straight-forward about it enough to be refreshing, the different types of racism that take form, from straight out mockery to slightly condescending disbelief. These are definitely do their part to enrich both Nick and Nat, and the world that they live in, i.e. our world.
The book also does a great job at hinting at characters. From my interpretation, it seemed to me that Charlie was in the closet and over-compensating, which gives a lot of depth to his character and feeling like his actions are understandable, even if they're not justifiable. This happens a couple of times in the book and every time they glance enough for me to get an impression of depth without getting a ten page backstory on the character. Considering that usually me saying this is a COMPLAINT, I just liked it because it made me feel like the characters were rounded even if they weren't important enough to be vital to the story.
Endings can be difficult to do, but the ending for this book came very naturally. The frustration of both Nick and his father are palpable, and his father finally being unable to continue with the lack of information, something he knows to be unfair, felt justified in its occurrence. Though several characters tell Nick to be more open, it becomes clear that that was apparently a one-way street. And the one-two punch that hits Nick, one in reality, one in the game, are set up well, a domino effect that Nick is no longer capable of fighting against. By the time I got to Nick's alone conversation with his mother, I was incredibly close to tears.
Okay, so. I'm sorry. There are portions of this book that I didn't like and I'm going to be honest - they are the gaming scenes. I guess I should write a bit of a personal defense on this before I get started because first of all, I did really like the idea
of the gaming sections - they're why I picked up the book. I'm an avid, avid gamer, and I always have been, and really like books that toy with the idea that gaming can be used for a lot of different things. I was piqued by the concept of using gaming as communication through a mental illness, though the book makes it clear fairly early on how this is probably impossible. But the book is also impressive in how much I wanted it to be true as much as Nick did, though my pessimism stopped the belief from solidifying, even if I was flying through pages just wanting to knooooooowwwww
So my problem is really that I'm an avid gamer. The game described in the book is very kind of World of Warcraft-y and sort of Skyrim-y and I didn't believe a single goddamned sentence in it.
Severkin looks up and sees the glimmer of her tears, feels the ache of his shoulders, there's blood on his armor that he now needs to change out of - what is this magical amazing perfect simulation game of awesome??????? I'm sure people will argue with me but on some level I will defend gaming's lack
of immersion. It's kind of half the fun. Death being a relatively inconsequential thing is
part of the fun. But in the book, characters take actions I would never believe someone would program into a game in the current age. I feel like every one of us gamers are disconnected from a game (it's why the fourth wall utilized in things like Silent Hill 2 and Stanley Parable work), but the gaming part of the book basically just feels like a separate fantasy novel spliced in throughout. Ironically, Nick is so immersed in the game that I get anything but immersed in the book.
It would be one thing for this book to imply that the story takes place 20 minutes in the future where technology has developed this far, and Nick pops on the VR headset to play the game or whatever the somesuch, but it doesn't. Nick turns on his computer, picks up his controller and is brought to a computer generated world so realistic you can feel heat? Smell mud? Can't tell human and NPC characters apart even while communicating with them? How are you communicating with them without some sort of user input? Do they just talk back if you have a headset? What if you don't have a headset?
Not to mention while being in Severkin's head we are effectively in an entirely different character - and how so? Did Nick write this character? Severkin does reflect Nick in character choice from time to time, but they're separate enough people
that they feel and read quite differently. I felt like this sections could have been more effective with more intersplicing of us being shown Nick actually playing
the game. Hesitations of what to say, how to say it when Reunne seems to slip into Sophie territory. Nick fumbling with controls in anxiety and panic. Nick opening a separate chat with Nat to talk about how to approach Ruenne - I know that Nick seems to be super intent on being totally caught up with the game, but while I am willing to concede that that is appropriate for the early part of the book it would have been more interesting to me as Nick begins to see his real life seeping into the game, it does for the reader as well, and Nick can't escape the reality of his situation, video game or not.
I get that this is absolutely a critique of a gamer
and someone who doesn't care about video games to the absurd extent I do may barely bat an eyelash, but I needed to mention it because it is basically an entire half of this book, which meant that I spent an entire half of this book having to force my sense of disbelief and not really enjoying the book. What made those sections just bearable to me was knowing the real life undercurrent through them, but again, they just felt so separate that it was occasionally something that I had to remind myself, as opposed to the two sides existing together.
Before you write this off as a negative review, however, the past like four paragraphs were my rant about one
aspect of the book, even if physically it was a huge chunk of the book. All said and done, this book hit me emotionally, the characters were believably 12 but not a frustrating 12, and their social status as mixed-race people, of having a family member with a hereditary mental disease, of different lives, different coping mechanisms, these were all powerful enough parts of the book to make a great whole and it is a book I would absolutely recommend.