Books

Looking for Alaska by John Green – Book Review

Looking for Alaska, by John Green, the only book of the 2020 challenge I devoured. I knew of Green, and The Fault in our Stars, but always thought his writing would be a bit gimmicky. I see enough teenage tragedy on a daily basis: ‘Brook was my best friend but she called me a -‘ or ‘he threatened me on TikTok’ or ‘I love him but he has a girlfriend’, so I wasn’t thrilled to read a teen drama, but my word did it shock me.

The Premise

Miles, or ‘Pudge’ as he’s affectionately known by his friends moves to Culver Creek and falls in with the misfits of the boarding school – The Colonel, Takumi, and the eponymous Alaska. The first half of the book centres on their relationships, and the lessons Pudge learns about life and sex. However, all changes following the tragic death of Alaska. The latter half of the book follows Pudge and the Colonel’s attempts to discover why Alaska died, whether it was an accident or suicide.

Review

I think I should start with Alaska’s characterisation. She obviously is depressed. Green cleverly drops signs throughout the first half of the book through her actions and speech. There are references to the idea of ‘escaping the labyrinth’. She has moody outbursts which Pudge clearly struggles to deal with, claiming that she is being horrible to him, or thinking that it is his fault. She drinks and smokes excessively, and seems to have a dismissive attitude towards sex. Even before her death it was clear to me that she was showing all the signs of someone who might have considered taking their own life. Green has been very clear that he does not want to diagnose Alaska, or specify whether her death is accidental or suicide, but based on the circumstances of her death, there may well have been a call of the void that Alaska just could not ignore. Perhaps the most upsetting part about it was that she actually reminded me of my teenage self a little.

Structurally, Looking for Alaska is really clever. Alaska’s death happens in the direct centre of the book, the chapters named for the number of days before and afterwards mirror either side. The novel is an easy read as it is, but we are led directly to the turning point, I found myself becoming more and more anxious. The events in the days leading up to the death become more risky, so it’s clear that something terrible is about to happen. On that note, the rap scene is very of its time! It’s very cringey to read now, but that’s the risk with writing Young Adult fiction, I guess.

The reason I read this book is because it was actually banned from study in some US states due to its use of offensive language, references to alcohol and smoking, and a couple of somewhat graphic descriptions of sexual activity. Now, I teach teenagers on a daily basis, and can confirm that Green’s use of language is almost identical to the language of Essex secondary schoolers. Perhaps there is a bit less smoking and drinking in real life, but lots of teens are accessing pornography – one of the graphic descriptions Green crafts in a scene – and having awkward sex! In my opinion, the practice of banning books is nonsense, and banning this one for reference to actual teenage behaviours ignores the incredible references to theology, literature, and mental health that run as threads throughout the plot.

Who would like this book?

It’s a must for Young Adult fiction lovers, but I think modern teens would really enjoy it.

Rating

Excellent

I honestly wish I’d read this as a teenager in the late 2000s – that’s all I have left to say.

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