Meg Wolitzer Simon & Schuster Australia Published 1st October 2014 Thank you to Simon & Schuster Australia for providing me with this book in exchange for an honest review. This did not influence my review in any way.
Belzhar blew me away.
After a slew of average, mediocre, just okay reads it was just what I needed to set my heart on fire again. I could never doubt my faith in books, but sometimes when you read one after the other without them ever making you excited, well you start to get a bit fed up. Belzhar fixed that awful state of mind I was in and put me back on that fluffy cloud and gave me back the feeling I get when I read amazing books. I have also never read The Bell Jar, which having read other reviews really adds to the enjoyment of this novel, but I look forward to sometime very soon!
Belzhar introduces us to Jam, or Jamaica, who is devastated following the death of her boyfriend, Reeve. For a year she has hidden herself away from the world, some days refusing to get out of bed. Her parents send her to psychologists, try to get her to go back to school, but nothing works so as a last resort they send her to The Wooden Barn, for highly intelligent but emotionally fragile students. It is here that she finds Belzhar. One of only five students in Mrs. Q’s Special Topics in English class, Jam and the others study Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and are given red leather journals in which they can write about whatever they wish, as long as they write. In these red leather journals, the students, who each have suffered a traumatic event in their recent past, are able to go back to before their lives had been changed by that event. While they are there, everything is how it was – but nothing can change. In Belzhar, as they call it, the world does not move forward, even when their outside lives are.
There was so much to love about this book but funnily enough, Jam wasn’t one of them. Not straight away anyway. I sympathised with her, but when she tells you she had only known her boyfriend for forty-one days (together for twenty-six) it kind of makes you go ‘huh?’ I normally have no time for insta-love. But I thought, okay, death is traumatic, especially when you have such a deep connection with someone and not only are you mourning the person you lost but you are mourning the loss of what could have been. Coupled with that the fact that Jam is so young (fifteen at the time of the tragedy) and emotionally in such a formative state when you’re still learning what love is and who you are, it did make more sense the more I thought about it. Obviously the way she handled it was not ideal and I would hate for anyone to have to deal with that kind of emotional trauma, but trying to understand her mindset without judging her, while kind of hard for me to start with, was paramount to my enjoyment of this novel and I was glad it challenged my preconceived notions of young love. Jam’s development and growth over the course of the novel, thanks to her new friends, her new life and the journal, is heartwarming to be privy to and the message is so full of hope. There’s a bit of a twist at the end and I think it would be easy to say that Jam’s trauma is not as real as anyone else’s but I think part of what she had experienced was somewhat of a psychotic episode which is just as much of a problem, plus the fact that she had no idea of how to handle what she was going through.
The other four members of the class have each suffered a traumatic event of their own in their recent past and each brought something to the story. The bond forged by the five of them leads me to believe that this is part of what aided their recovery and acceptance of what happened to them. Their desire to finally move forward and their support of one another was one of my favourite parts of this novel. The secret of the journals is never really explained but for once I didn’t mind – it feels a bit magical and defies logic but it doesn’t need to make sense. Belzhar represents the cathartic experience that can be gained from writing and I loved that because I truly believe that words matter.