I am really struggling to know where to start the discussion about this book, as it stirred so many strong emotions that my allegiances and sympathies constantly shifted back and forth, until I found myself completely 'sitting on the fence'.
At times I just wanted to put my arms around Ben, let him pour out all his worries and troubles, then help to set him on a hopefully more fulfilling and worthwhile path. Then he would do something so crass and thoughtless, that I just wanted to slap him and tell him that I wanted nothing more to do with him.
Such is the maturity and intensity of Brendon's superb narrative, with totally believeable and genuine characterisations, relationships and situations.
The book is brutal in its vivid descriptions of the progression through the spectrum of anti-establishment activities, which the gang participates in, and with which they appear to be sending out a challenge, both to authority and to each other, as they increase in intensity and violence ... gang membership and violence, teenage sex, underage smoking, alcohol abuse, banned substance abuse, knife culture, illegal possession of firearms, underage driving and murder...
The writing is also perceptive, sensitive, well considered and balanced, when we manage to get Ben on his own and see his true personality begin to develop and expand ... Loneliness, aloneness, unhappiness, dysfunctional families who do not communicate, the need to succeed, the feelings that he should start to try and find someone with whom he can share his life. These are all emotions and observations which Ben is more than adaquately able to express , when he puts his mind to it and he is not being led and influenced by others in the gang, or is acting the big shot in front of them, with always something to prove. He is actually quite astute and observational when he takes the time to 'people watch', concluding that most of them are inherently unhappy and spend most of their time 'chasing their tails', in an effort to appear trendy and part of the 'in crowd'.
At what point, Ben wonders, was his innocence lost, when did everyone become so judgemental of him that he felt the need to close himself off from the outside world into a place of safety and security by hiding behind his hoodie. Why is it that the only person he feels really wants to talk and (more importantly) listen to him, understands him and is sensitive to his vulnerability is Joe, a disreputable tramp?
Joe is perhaps one of the best supporting characters in the book, although he makes the least appearances. Despite his own obvious fall from the mainstream of life, Joe comes across as an educated man, who is quietly aware and sensitive to Ben's inner turmoil and is genuinely eager for Ben to get on with his life and make something of himself. Things are going well between them, until Joe badly mis-reads the situation and his relationship with Ben, and makes what is to Ben, a devastating revelation, his reaction to which sends them both into a downwards spiral, with disastrous consequences for both and leading to their combined ultimate sacrifice.
I am not sure whether Brendon deliberately wrote the book in such a way, that the reader is almost forced into this position as a neutral observer, however, after much contemplation, I came up with these clear thoughts about the book .... It is, in almost equal measure ....
Uncomfortable, yet unputdownable
Would I give this book to a Young Adult to read? ... possibly.
For many, it would certainly be all the deterrent needed to avoid this path to certain, total and ultimate self destruction. However, I would worry that for the certain, albeit small minority group, it might only serve as a catalyst to magnify, glorify and promote to exalted status, the power which 'Hoodie' and 'The Shady Boys', think they command.
On the other hand, I think that 'Hoodie' should be compulsory reading for all guardians of young adults, about to enter the 'Secondary', or 'Middle School' phase of their education. 'Hoodie' is an inspirational work of fiction, which speaks to everyone, regardless of age or social class, so if you don't think this scenario is ever one that you will face with your own young adult, then be sure to track the character of Isabelle, very closely.
The poignant, emotional and personal poem, with which Brendon chooses to close the story on 'The Shady Boys', is a fitting tribute and brings a closure and finality to the book, unlike anything else he may have written in its place.
On a final, lighter note, I loved the cover graphics for 'Hoodie', the design for which became apparent as I followed Ben on his travels to the skatepark, and was brought full circle by its obvious link to the book's title. So many book covers have no cohesion to the storyline in any way, that 'Hoodie' provided a refreshing change and set the scene before I even started to read.
The synergy and collaborative thinking between two independent authors, coming together to co-write something as difficult as the short novella, must be something very special.
Rachel and Leah have pulled this off spectacularly with ‘The Parting Gift’, to produce:- A compact novella which manages to incorporate a well-defined beginning, middle and end; an escapist and not too overly emotional read, which still manages to incorporate a serious message within its pages; a great story to curl up with of an evening and one which is comfortably readable in one or two sittings.
There are some great articles out there about the authors as individuals, however none of them discuss the complexities of writing as a couple, so if either Leah or Rachel happen to come across this post, I would invite them to leave a comment about this aspect of ‘The Parting Gift’, as an extra discussion point to the article, although I have discovered that Leah is responsible for the evocative and emotional prologue, which sets the scene so beautifully.
Once the correlation between the prologue and the main storyline was established (although I was left to speculate on what had ocurred in the intervening 15 year interval), the plot became obvious and transparent quite quickly, so that I knew exactly what the end-game was going to be. However the build-up and plot construction was well managed and orchestrated, and hung together well as a sequence of events that wasn’t too rushed or hurried, despite the book having such a modest number of pages.
The characters were complex yet strong, very well defined and all ‘grew’ into their individual roles nicely, as the story progressed. The changes that the characters brought to bear on one another, were wrought through determination, persistence and the underlying knowledge that through their individual grief and conflict, they were all starved of the ability to give and receive love. It would only be when they could all open their hearts and minds to one anothers inner emotional conflicts, that the healing process could begin and from there forgiveness and love would automatically follow.
Mara has suffered her share of loss and grief, although she deals with it in a much more controlled way than the two men seem able to, with her quiet faith and belief that love can bring about a change to the most broken heart and stubborn mind.
David acted with the best of intentions by trying to shield his son from the terrors of loss and bereavement at such a young age, but was so unable to come to terms with his own grief and devastation at being left alone, that he couldn’t see that Blaine was the lasting link to his deceased wife. Instead of nurturing and protecting this precious and lasting legacy, he only succeeds in pushing him away, to shield himself from both his own pain and the pleading he sees in his son’s eyes.
Blaine has never been able to forgive his father for what he sees as this complete and utter rejection, when all he ultimately sought was his father’s love and understanding. As a defence mechanism he then completely rejected his father, hardened his heart and built a tough and unbreakable shell around himself, which he allowed no-one to penetrate.
Three stubborn people, leading broken and damaged lives, who will ultimately only be reconciled by a life-changing set of circumstances, which they need to confront and deal with as individuals, before they are able to come together one last time. Fate will once again deal a blow that will re-shape their destiny, but their new found strength will be the bond that keeps them strong.
A character driven story, with a complex and difficult storyline, dealt with in a mature and sensitive narrative, that was touching and emotional, yet in no way left me feeling as though I had been preached to.