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Where the Light Goes by Sara Barnard - Review

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

When I was at Northern YA Lit Fest in July, Sara Barnard was one of the panellists and she was as always brilliant and she was talking about this book so I bought it and got her to sign it. I picked it up a couple of weeks ago and although I found it a very hard read I also thought it was absolutely brilliant. 

You see, it is about a sixteen year old girl, Emmy, whose famous sister, Beth, takes her own life. That is a harrowing subject anyway, but this is also something I have personal experience of. My dad took his own life way back in 2008 when I was just 24. I fully believe that I lost my mind for a while afterwards in the grief, and I have certainly never been the same person since. I have spent the last fifteen years trying in small ways to destigmatise suicide and I've read with interest The Samaritans' tips on how to report suicide, and I never use the phrase "commit suicide" for instance as it's just SO bad. So I was immediately interested when Sara talked about the fact that she lost a friend to suicide a few years ago and that she is a volunteer for The Samaritans and that she had paid good attention to the media rules and had woven this into the book. She made the point that we should never know exactly how someone high profile has died which is definitely not something that the press has done in recent years and which they definitely should be ashamed of. 

I spoke to Sara briefly about this as she was signing the book and mentioned my dad and said how I feel like having police involved in a death is just adding insult to injury. It's horrible when you have to do a public inquest and your own dad is in the newspaper and stuff like that. I feel like because Beth in the book is famous, this point was really brought across to the reader because obviously there's massive press interest in her story, in her life and in her death. 

So Beth has been famous since she was sixteen and at the time of her death she is twenty one. She got famous on something a bit like The X Factor with her band, The Jinks, which was comprised of Beth, aka Lizzie Beck, and her best friends Jodie, Aiya, and Tam. However, she has had drug and alcohol problems and she was on the verge of leaving the band. She had been in rehab. Her and Emmy's dad, Malcolm, was one of the band's managers, so in the weeks after her death he is quite absent, doing band things. 

Emmy is sixteen and has just finished drama school, at a place called Shona Lee, but she hopes to return to it for the sixth form. She absolutely idolised her sister and she is a singer herself and wants to be famous too. But she understands that there's a difference between Lizzie Beck the pop star and Beth her sister. She knows that Beth was far from perfect, but she just can't get her head round Beth's suicide. She has a best friend, Grey, and two other girls she's really close with, but she ends up pushing them away because she just doesn't know what to say. She also pushes away her boyfriend, Scottie. 

The story is so well told, told in the ninety days following Beth's death. The times when Emmy just can't put herself together. The times she needs her mum, who hides herself away and won't talk to Emmy. The times when she needs her dad, who is still busy with the band, who Emmy thinks have betrayed Beth. The times when Emmy herself does bad or misjudged things which are the reader you TOTALLY get. As I say, I did some fucking weird things in the aftermath of my dad's death, and I was a fully grown adult who was married and had a job! Suicide is its own particular kind of pain and Sara encapsulates that beautifully. You can tell she has experience of it. 

I will also mention the writing. The book isn't told in prose, wholly. There's more prose towards the end and I think this is when Emmy begins to see the light at the end of the tunnel. At the beginning, when she's massively grieving and is just reeling from the shock, the writing is all over the place. There are just little vignettes as Emmy lurches from day to day. I think this is a brilliant way of writing grief. 

I would recommend this book a hundred percent if you think it's something you can cope with. The writing is beautiful. The story is lush - you desperately want Emmy to be okay, you want to give her a hug, and I wanted to tell her that she would survive, that she would not only survive but she would thrive, that she would be happy again, and that she would always always miss her sister, but she would always honour her memory too. If I could give this more than five out of five, I would. 

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