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Saturday, June 21, 2014

‘How to Say Goodbye in Robot’ by Natalie Standiford

From the BLURB:

New to town, Beatrice is expecting her new best friend to be one of the girls she meets on the first day. But instead, the alphabet conspires to seat her next to Jonah, aka Ghost Boy, a quiet loner who hasn't made a new friend since third grade. Something about him, though, gets to Bea, and soon they form an unexpected friendship. It's not romance, exactly - but it's definitely love. Still, Bea can't quite dispel Jonah's gloom and doom - and as she finds out his family history, she understands why. Can Bea help Jonah? Or is he destined to vanish?

‘How to Say Goodbye in Robot’ was the 2009 young adult novel by Natalie Standiford.

My decision to read this book was based almost entirely on stars. Star-ratings, that is, as opposed to any one particular glowing review. Because it seemed to me that while many people love this book, they couldn’t quite articulate why that was the case. Clues about the synopsis were vague (even the blurb offers little in the way of plot) but I persisted in seeing this distinctive pink cover (and, I’ve gotta admit, catchy title) popping up on ‘recommended reading’ lists everywhere I went. So I finally caved and bought the book, read the book, loved the book … and now completely understand people’s inability to wholly summarise Natalie Standiford’s quirky-tender novel of friendship.

Beatrice’s father is a college professor, so her family (consisting of herself, her mum and dad) move around a lot following his tenures. Beatrice thinks her latest new town will be more of the same, though perhaps more painful as she’s now joining a class of seniors who have all known each other since they were in kindergarten. There’s no reason for Beatrice to expect her stay in this town (the last, before she whisks herself away to college – hopefully in New York) no doubt she’ll make friends with the blandly popular girls, coast along in her classes and maybe attend a few pep-rallys. Except that on her first day at the new school she is assigned an assembly seat next to Jonah, otherwise known by all his long-serving classmates as ‘Ghost Boy’ … and Beatrice finds her life will never be the same.

Over a shared love of the fantastically kitsch and quirky late-night Night Light radio program, Beatrice and Jonah become close friends. Even while others look on in wonder and scepticism that long-time weird classmate has found such a normal friend. Jonah got the name ‘Ghost Boy’ after his young classmates decided to pretend he was dead, and come back to haunt them all as a ghost (oh, hilarious! The casual cruelty of primary-school kids).

In Jonah, Beatrice discovers a friendship that runs deeper than lust and ‘like’ – is not clouded by sexual attraction but a deep understanding of the other person, the finding of a soul mate.

There’s quite a lot going on, story-wise, in this book. But it’s hard to explain all the various threads without making them sound like a rotten jumble of yarn when, in actuality, the way Standiford lays them out in almost vignette style is rather masterful. There’s a thread about Beatrice’s increasingly erratic mother, obsessed with chickens and for some odd reason not at all coping with their latest house move. Then there’s the back-story about Jonah’s family, his deceased mother and brother. The plot is laid out by the months of Beatrice and Jonah’s senior year, and each connects to the over-arcing story with breaks in between for the scripts of the Night Light radio program (and the curious cast of characters who call the host for a chat). I don’t want to make it seem like there is no plot or ‘action’ to the story – there is, and it comes to a feverish climax that will leave some reeling – but the way Standiford teases out the story in an ebb and flow is quite something to read.

Beatrice is a fantastic protagonist. The title comes from a distraught comment made by her mother, about Beatrice’s muted emotions, after the death of a gerbil they knew for only a few hours. Beatrice is at once outwardly robotic, while internalising and worrying – she’s a cool kid on the outside, hectic within and a joy to read;

“Why did you say you were from Iceland?” Walt said. “That was kind of weird.” 
I hesitated, acutely aware of the blankness on my face, the stiff way my head moved. But Walt had asked and so I had to answer, to complete the task. That’s what robots do. 
“I don’t know,” I said. “I heard this thing on the radio once. On the BBC. They said some scientists had studied everybody in the whole world and found that the happiest people on earth are hairdressers in Iceland. I guess that little fact got stuck in my brain somehow and decided to pop on out on its own.” Searching circuits for relevant data, I thought to myself. Stupid robot dork. 
“Hairdressers in Iceland? Really?” Walt said. 
“I swear.”

I did love this book, but I now understand people’s reluctance to delve into the story too much, lest new readers be denied the satisfaction of being pulled under by Natalie Standiford’s quirky-tender novel. Be like me and discover it for yourself.


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