I loved the teen/YA novel Marcelo in the Real World, a story about a teen boy with autism, by Francisco X. Stork, so when I heard he had a new novel out this year, I snatched it up! I just finished listening to The Memory of Light on audio, and I was once again blown away by the author’s ability to deal with serious real-world issues in an honest and powerful way.
As the novel opens, fifteen-year old Vicky Cruz wakes up in a hospital, after trying to commit suicide by swallowing a bunch of her step-mother’s pills. She is only alive because her nanny, Juanita, found her and called 911. Vicky loves Juanita with all her heart and is upset and ashamed that she found her – that’s not what was supposed to happen. She was supposed to be dead by now, swallowed up in a black silence. Vicky doesn’t even know how to explain to Juanita why she did it because she doesn’t fully understand herself, but she knows she will try again if she goes back home now.
So, although her father and step-mother want her to come home immediately, Vicky opts to stay in the hospital for now. In the psychiatric ward, she meets a small group of other teens also living there and undergoing treatment. First, she meets Mona, her talkative and energetic roommate who also tried to commit suicide and refers to the act breezily as, “doing the deed.” E.M. is an angry boy with a violent past who doesn’t say much in group therapy sessions. Gabriel seems like a kind and caring boy, with no hint as to why he is in the ward. Dr. Desai, a petite woman in a sari, is helping all of the teens with both individual counseling and group sessions.
Little by little, Vicky begins to open up and talk about her feelings and the problems that led to her suicide attempt. She learns about depression, something she didn’t even realize she had. At one point, Dr. Desai gets permission – from both the hospital and their parents – for the four teens to come out to her ranch for two weeks. It’s a beautiful place in the country where she often brings damaged teens to heal. Although the ranch helps in many ways, things fall apart at one point, and the teens are separated.
For Vicky, this means being sent home, even though she is scared to face her “real” life without her support system and to return to the world that led to her suicide attempt in the first place. She reluctantly returns home and to school, trying to remember the things she learned from Dr. Desai and the others. When a crisis hits one of her new friends, Vicky must decided whether to obey her father or defy him and go help. Slowly, gradually, things improve for Vicky, until she begins to feel like maybe she might be able to manage this life and keep living.
This was a powerful story, based in part on the author’s own experiences with depression as a teen and young adult. A young person in my own life – someone that I care for very much – has been dealing with suicidal thoughts, so this novel was especially resonant for me. Based on those experiences, I think that Vicky’s hospital stay was somewhat idealized – I wish that psychiatric wards all worked like this one did and that all doctors in charge of them were like Dr. Desai. However, the author may have done that on purpose to show troubled teens how support like this can help. In the epilogue, he explains that he was helped by a hospital stay while in college himself. I thought it was very realistic, though, that Vicky seemed to have a wonderful life from the outside, so no one knew how much she was suffering inside. It was an excellent, clear depiction of depression.
While this kind of positive hospital experience – and field trip to a beautiful ranch – may not be the standard of care today (though its should be), I think it’s important to the story, to show the path to recovery and healing for Vicky and others like her. In fact, despite its somber subject matter, this is not a dark book. Its honest and eye-opening look at depression and suicide provides insight for those of us with loved ones suffering and hope that things might be get better for those young readers with feelings similar to Vicky’s. It is a moving, candid story about a subject that is not talked about enough, with a focus on hope and healing. This novel should be required reading for all teens and anyone who cares about them.
NOTE: If you or someone you love is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or reach out to a doctor or other trusted healthcare professional. Here is more information on teen suicide, including more links and resources.