This is not your typical young adult novel with moments of fluff or light-heartedness that reflect the joys of being young. Far from it. Marieke Nijkamp’s latest novel, Before I Let Go, is heavy all the way through, and it’s better if you read it prepared.
The story revolves around two girls, Kyra and Corey, from the small town of Lost Creek in Alaska—a place at the edge of the Earth where people are wary of ‘outsiders’. When the whole town turns on Kyra after she is first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Corey is her fiercest protector. Despite the wide berth that the residents give Kyra, Corey never wavers in her loyalty. Even when Kyra goes through manic moments— painting until the break of dawn to burn her energy, getting angry at the tiniest of reasons—Corey continues to be patient and understanding.
But then Corey’s family moves away, and Kyra is left on her own. Seven months later, Kyra is dead from an apparent suicide and Corey is ridden with guilt. Corey vows to return to Lost Creek to find out what really happened. The problem is, she has now been deemed an ‘outsider’ herself by the same people who used to invite her into their homes with warmth and love. Corey is determined to find out why Kyra took her own life, but the deeper she digs, the more dangerous things become.
The book flicks between present and past, showing us what life was like before Corey left Lost Creek. We experience the girls’ friendship, Kyra’s mania and the complex relationships they both have with the townspeople.
The book discusses important societal issues like mental disorders, gay relationships and the continued stigma that young people with mental illness suffer due to a lack of understanding from others. These issues play out in the entire book with no reprieve, and the dire consequences they have will leave you with a feeling of darkness and dread in the pit of your stomach.
It is sometimes difficult to know what is going on in the book as you read it from Corey’s perspective. We know that Kyra suffered from mental illness before she died, but as you go through the story, it starts to seem like Corey is suffering from a mental breakdown herself. She starts to hear Kyra everywhere, sees things that weren’t there before. Perhaps it’s the stress from the intensity of her emotions and the isolation she feels. Or perhaps it’s something that has always been there, even if she was never diagnosed.
This is a book filled with sadness and anxiety, and it’s not for everyone. If you’ve never lived in a small town with an extreme small-town mentality, it’s difficult to imagine that people would actually go to such lengths to protect their town’s secret. How far would a whole community go to save its reputation?
Having said that, it is important that an author has taken on such heavy topics and delivered such realistic depictions. This book might very well help to shine a light on the issue of mental illness in today’s youth.
Kristyn M. Levis is a freelance writer, author and photographer based in Sydney. She is currently the managing editor of Her Collective and creative director of 3C Digital. Her first novel, The Girl Between Two Worlds, was published in 2016. Book Two, The Girl Between Light and Dark, is out now.