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Monday, April 21, 2014

'All Our Pretty Songs' by Sarah McCarry

From the BLURB:

The first book in an exciting YA trilogy, this is the story of two best friends on the verge of a terrifying divide when they begin to encounter a cast of strange and mythical characters.

Set against the lush, magical backdrop of the Pacific Northwest, two inseparable best friends who have grown up like sisters—the charismatic, mercurial, and beautiful Aurora and the devoted, soulful, watchful narrator—find their bond challenged for the first time ever when a mysterious and gifted musician named Jack comes between them. Suddenly, each girl must decide what matters most: friendship, or love. What both girls don’t know is that the stakes are even higher than either of them could have imagined. They’re not the only ones who have noticed Jack’s gift; his music has awakened an ancient evil—and a world both above and below which may not be mythical at all. The real and the mystical; the romantic and the heartbreaking all begin to swirl together, carrying the two on journey that is both enthralling and terrifying.

And it’s up to the narrator to protect the people she loves—if she can.

‘Aurora and I live in a world without fathers,’ – so begins this tale by an unnamed narrator, about her and Aurora living on the edge until one of them falls in.

Aurora is the daughter of a famous and deceased rockstar; a Cobain-esque legend who left behind a wild daughter and her junkie mother, Maia, in a too big house with plenty of cash but no moorings. Our anonymous narrator is the daughter of Cass, once Maia’s best friend who was there in the rockstar hey-days and saw her best friend decay into grief and addiction, until deciding to take herself and her daughter away from that world and into a cramped studio apartment.

Cass is a macrobiotic witch, narrator tells us, and knowing the powerful connection she and Aurora have, Cass let the girls run rampant but always offers them safe harbour.

Our narrator and Aurora are the best of friends – one is the super-ego saviour the other her reckless id. Until the day our narrator meets Jack, a handsome and talented struggling musician who burns her up inside and threatens Aurora’s hold on her.

And then Aurora meets Minos, and everything threatens to come crashing down.

‘All Our Pretty Songs’ was the 2013 young adult novel by Sarah McCarry.

I remember being really excited for this book last year; I salivated over the cover and blurb, pre-ordered my copy and then … nothing. I expected to read rumblings of praise and recommendation, but instead I got radio-silence on the review front. I didn’t really get it, until I read for myself.

‘All Our Pretty Songs’ is a really good example of how story is King, and all the pretty words in the world can’t make up for a book that’s lacking story momentum. It’s sort of like a magic trick: at first you’re dazzled, but then the wire strings start glinting and you can’t help but notice all the deliberate distractions intended to make you believe in something that’s just not there.

Sarah McCarry is a beautiful, lyrical writer. Truly, I wanted to breathe her words in and roll around in their sumptuousness. For the first 20 or so pages I was absolutely captivated – I’m talking jaw-on-the-floor, tingles down my back in awe of her writing;

Guitar so loud we can feel it in our chests. Someone else’s hair in our faces and someone else’s knuckle in our teeth and sometimes, when it’s really good, a current charges from body to body and everyone around us is part of it, part of us, part of the drumbeat thundering through so hard our breathing shifts to follow its pulse. Music turns us inside out with hunger, the need to hurt ourselves, get drunk, fuck, punch strangers, the need to take off all our clothes and run around in the grass screaming, the need to get in a car and drive off in the middle of the night with a pack of strangers. We let the music shake us loose from the moorings of our bodies and hearts and brains, until we are nothing but sex and sweat and fists and hot hot light.

And I loved the set-up of Aurora as this Frances Bean Cobain daughter of a dead legend, with a junkie mother in a mansion house and her poor best friend, our unknown narrator, constantly keeping her from going too far into the abyss. I was interested, and I was invested. Here are two girls with lives destined to break, and I wanted to be there when it happened.

Things get interesting when our narrator (whom I should say, while reading, I didn’t even notice was nameless because McCarry’s writing is so distractingly beautiful) meets Jack – a real deal, talented musician. Here, I thought, was interesting conflict when Aurora is the one everyone falls for, but the narrator is the girl Jack wants. Jealousy creeps in, green-eyed and lurking and I thought, surely, things are going to get interesting.

No. Instead, things get paranormal-mystical and it just doesn’t work.

With Jack comes Minos, a frightening man with an even scarier boss who is interested in Aurora’s charisma and beauty, and craves Jack’s talent. Then the story of ‘All Our Pretty Songs’ veers into mythology territory and a retelling of ‘The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus’ about selling one’s soul to the devil. There’s also a head-nod to the Orpheus myth, about crossing the threshold to the underworld with a song.

Look, I knew the paranormal twist was coming because it’s in the blurb, but I didn’t bank on it being so jarring and feeling so disconnected from what this story start out as (namely, a contemporary tale of friendship and love, jealousy and grief).

Where McCarry’s writing so beautifully suits the contemporary tale, when I felt so connected to our narrator as she observes her life with Aurora and the past that plagues them both, I didn’t want to leave their world and enter into the underworld of paranormal mythology.

McCarry has a real gift for contemporary. It was in our narrator observing her mother’s love life;

Cass has a guillotine heart, severing ties as neatly as a whistle-sharp blade cutting the head from the body. Like any good revolutionary, she pretends that the casualties mean nothing.

And viewing herself as an outsider looking in, comparing herself to Aurora while still loving her;

I am to Aurora what a gift-store postcard print is to a Klimt hanging on the museum wall. I do not love her any less for it; I think it is best to know what you are and make peace with it.

This sort of writing suits contemporary YA, and I wish it was what McCarry had stuck to. Unfortunately her style is less suited to flights-of-fancy and fantasy, to the point where she had to actually start name-checking Greek myths because the second-half of the story had gotten so convoluted and lost.

To be sure, Sarah McCarry has echoes of Francesca Lia Block and her ‘Weetzie Bat’ series (which McCarry name-checks, so she must be a fan) but where Lia Block can pull off the magical realism, McCarry and ‘All Our Pretty Songs’ is far less successful. I think it comes from the disconnection between the contemporary-feel first-half, which suddenly changes gears to include mythology and devils in the second.

I see that a second book is due for release in July this year. Called ‘Dirty Wings’, it’s touted as a sort of prequel and tells the story of young Cass and Maia in a “gorgeous retelling of the Persephone myth”. I’m not sure about this book mostly because, we know how Cass and Maia’s story end sup – it’s pretty damn sad when ‘All Our Pretty Songs’ begins with Maia a full-blown junkie and Cass not having seen her best friend for years. Do I really want to read the story of how they got to that point? It’s not exactly hopeful, is it?

I would definitely read another Sarah McCarry book, for her gorgeous prose alone … but I will hope that in the future she either sticks to contemporary or fantasy, not this awkward mashing of both. ‘All Our Pretty Songs’ starts out (contemporary) and strong, but a muddled second-half loses the story entirely and all the pretty writing in the world can’t quite make up for it.


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