After last month’s book which was very female centred this month we discussed Because You’ll Never Meet Me by Leah Thomas. We had some mixed reactions to the novel. Some really liked it for its unique take on male friendship whilst some of us thought it missed its mark a little in the execution of the story line.
The biggest difficulty we had with this book was that it was felt that the author was not entirely sure what type of novel she wanted to write. The first part of the books is a fairly standard contemporary novel but then it devolves into a speculative science-fiction fusion where disbelief must be suspended.
The novel unfolds in alternating chapters in letter form between Oliver and Moritz, both boys who have disabilities and in their own way are each isolated from their communities. Ollie lives in a cabin in the wood as he has an extreme form of epilepsy where any exposure to electricity brings on extreme seizures. Moritz is in Germany. He was born with no eyes, cardiomyopathy and the distinctive skill of echolocation. Over the course of the novel the boys develop a special friendship as they share the daily aspects of their lives and challenge each other to stand up for themselves, tackle bullying and celebrate their differences.
There are some very lovely quotes about dealing with difference as seen when Moritz condemns Liz’s party that showed Ollie all the things that he was missing in life,
Why not celebrate that you are a wonderful, funny, irritating, talented young man anyone would be gratified to know? Someone I would die to meet?
We discussed the role of Liz in the novel and some queried Liz’s own background, wondering if she had suffered abuse herself, or simply neglect from her parents. We believed that she was rather heartless to Ollie at times but also thought her inability to accept his differences was a result of her immaturity. Many teens at that age want their friends to be able to participate in a “normal” life; by spending all her time with Ollie she was not achieving the popularity from the school that she so desperately wanted.
We talked about the symbolism of the power lines on the cover which symbolise Ollie’s allergy/epilepsy but also are a form of communication. They form the barrier that keep Ollie trapped in the woods and it is in crossing this barrier that Ollie feels freedom.
With the epistolary format the reader is only exposed to what the writer of the letter wants them to see. Both Moritz and Ollie hide facts from each other which build further suspense. What we thought was very well done was the different voice of each character. Although the story is written in first person Moritz uses a very formal style in addressing Oliver as ‘’you’’. There is a definite change of pace in chapter 23 as it is written by Gerhardt Farber, Moritz’s adopted father. We thought this chapter was a little clumsy as it contains the letter Moritz wrote to Ollie but did not send; it was felt that this did not really add to the progression of the narrative. Some of us thought that at times the writing style was laborious and a little dull and at times it was a struggle to keep on reading.
One of the really disturbing aspects of the novel is the bullying. Moritz is bullied by Lenz Monk at Bernholdt-Regen Hauptschule. He later discovers that Owen Abend has been bullied by Monk for far longer. The retribution that Moritz enacts on Lenz Monk was quite brutal and we discussed the idea, similar to that of last month’s book, when someone just “snaps’’. We were dismayed with the way the school dealt with the situations in blaming Moritz for his initial problems by telling him that he should have told the school that he was blind. The school’s reaction of then separating him from the rest of the cohort was precisely what he had been trying to avoid. We thought that Lenz Monk’s father’s response to their hospital visit was a little too convenient and not entirely realistic or true to character.
The issue that most of the group were least satisfied with was the explanation behind the boys disabilities. We could see what the author was trying to achieve but some felt it just went too far; from the realistic to the freakish. The descriptions of the children affected by the experiments almost tended to be farcical. We did have a good discussion; however, on the terrible experiments that were done to victims during World War II. We talked about other books such the classic, The Boys from Brazil, which deal with ethical issues and human experimentation. The quote, ‘Science for the sake of science is a terrifying thing …’ (p 250) generated some good debate. We also felt that this could have been a good book about boys who were born with disabilities but by attributing the disabilities to “science gone wrong” it really negated the importance of having diverse characters in literature by virtue of their own worth.
We felt that the ending was rushed and we were left with quite a few questions. Spoilers here – we were confused about the boys’ shared past in the laboratory with Moritz in Germany and Ollie in the USA. We also thought that the whole “cure” for Ollie was unbelievable and perhaps we just need to accept also that not all people who are disabled want to be, or need to be, “cured”. Overall we thought that this novel would appeal to a select few who are looking for something a little different. Again, it was a very interesting premise but perhaps the execution of the idea was not as good as it could have been.