Friday, 4 July 2014

My Thoughts On: Glasshopper by Isabel Ashdown


(That was my attempt at a typical British greeting, not sure if it worked...)

But once again there is a link, and you'll see why as you read on. Today I'm reviewing Glasshopper by Isabel Ashdown! 

Thirteen year-old Jake's world is unravelling as his father leaves home, and his mother Mary plunges into alcoholic freefall. When his parents reconcile, life finally seems to be looking up and before long the family are planning a much-needed holiday to a remote corner of the French Dordogne. But once there, long-unspoken secrets begin to resurface, and for Jake nothing will ever be the same again.

I came across this a while ago in my school's library, started reading but didn't continue, and promptly forgot about it. However, after recently attending a talk featuring a number of authors, I was lucky enough get my hands on another copy - signed too! And what a find it was. I devoured it within a couple of days and was completely entranced by Jake's story. It wasn't a disappointment. 

Set in Portsmouth in both in the 1960's and '80's, Glasshopper tells the stories of Jake - and Mary - his mother, switching between their viewpoints. This was effective, because as readers we were able to see both sides of the story and therefore sympathize and empathize with both sides. Ashdown's also done what many novels tackling alcoholism haven't, and delved deeper into Mary's character. Rather than seeing her as a monster, readers discover she has a much more 'human' side despite initial impressions and introductions by Jake. Mary was very much a 3D character, rather than being overshadowed by her son's voice and this provided a balanced narrative, appealing to all kinds of readers. 

The dysfunctional relationship between the families in Glasshopper was also something to be admired. As part of Mary's narrative, readers unearth that there's much more to her family life that contributes to her alcoholic freefall. This too continues with Jake - interactions between characters such as Aunt Rachel, his father Bill, his younger brother Andy and his cousins, lead to a tangle of mysteries knotted expertly throughout the plot. The one that hit me hardest was Jake’s brother Matthew’s absence. Even though he only briefly appears his absence spoke so many words. My heart went out to Jake as while readers were able to understand his disappearance, he couldn’t. Irony in touches was excellent.

The atmosphere surrounding his mother's 'low,' points were poignantly told by Jake and the dynamics between the family members were realistic and relatable. Points such as the New Year parties or family trips to Brighton I think could be met with a nostalgic pause for many readers.

Setting was a big hit for me too. Recognition of places in a novel always makes me a smile and mentions of areas I know well added to the enjoyment. Being strangely patriotic when it comes to books - preferring British writing a lot more than American for example - the voice and conventions such as going to a 'pub' and things as simple as using British spellings made Glasshopper an easy read.  It was in no way a simple plot however, but still easy enough to follow. Subtlety in Ashdown’s writing and the way she drip fed certain family secrets were cleverly crafted; some were quite a shock to me. While giving the surface impression that everything was going well for the family for a stretch of the novel – the niggling mystery and underlying family feud as it were, gave especially the holiday to France dark undertones. I enjoyed this element immensely. 

I will say that this isn’t exactly a book for people who like closure. Not everything is solved. Initially, this annoyed me slightly. I’d raced through the majority of the book to not get all the answers I wanted. On reflection though, I only have more respect for the author. Not leaving every strand with a definite ending just leaves the reader to question them themselves. It makes the book way more realistic and... like ‘real life,' the ending still remaining with me a week or so after finishing. The twist at the end did leave me satisfied, and while the reactions did jar with me to start with, I think that brought me closer to Jake. His confusion and denial was translated so well I felt it too.

As Glasshopper is I think aimed at adults, I may have missed some strands of story woven in or not fully understood them properly. This could’ve weakened my reading experience, so just a warning for younger readers if you're hopefully considering picking this up. 

In summary: A poignant look into dysfunctional family life, Glasshopper tugged at my heartstrings and made me feel everything the characters did. Accessible to both older and younger readers – 4 stars. 


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