Boo by Neil Smith ~ 2015. This edition: Vintage, 2015. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8041-7136-6. 310 pages.
My rating: 8.5/10
Hot off the press is this “young adult” novel by Montrealler Neil Smith.
It’s 1979, and in a high school hallway in an unnamed city in the United States, a thirteen-year-old boy has just died while standing in front of his locker. Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple wakes up in what can only be Heaven, but it is a Heaven utterly at odds with any preconceptions he or the other occupants might have had.
The place looks like a slightly run-down inner city housing development, it is surrounded by twenty-five-story-tall concrete walls, the weather is always pleasant, food and supplies show up as needed, things (including buildings) heal themselves when damaged, and every single person in the place is a thirteen-year-old American. After fifty years’ residence, during which the occupants mentally grow and mature but physically stay in their teenage form, a person (angel?) suddenly vanishes, though to where or what state no one knows.
Oliver adapts remarkably well to this new environment, though he has always been an agnostic and had not expected any sort of an afterlife. He’s not terribly shocked to have died, for he was in a life-long fragile state of health due to a heart defect. He misses his parents, and is writing an account of his experience in the faint hope that he can somehow, someday communicate with them.
Then another boy shows up, a schoolmate of Oliver’s, and as the two boys compare notes as to how they’ve perished, a troubling scenario begins to emerge, involving gunfire in the school hallway. Was there a killer, and if so who was it? Where is he (she?) now? Maybe right here in Heaven?
Stopping right here, because you’ll want to unravel this one for yourself.
Boo is firmly in the YA genre, but as with the best of these sorts of books, it easily crosses age-defined boundaries.
I liked it. For what it is, it’s very good, and I’m keen to see what my one remaining teenager has to say about it. I suspect she’ll find it as intriguing as I have.
I’d seen mention of it here and there during recent internet travels in search of other things, and thought it sounded darkly interesting, but I wasn’t moved to actively seek it out until I read more about the author and the background of the story here:
My local indie bookstore didn’t (yet) have Boo in stock, but ordered me a copy which arrived just a few days ago. I read it in one long session, staying up into the wee hours to finish it, and I put it down with rather mixed emotions. The ending was quite neatly handled, and I was completely engaged from start to finish, but the book has some flaws, too. Mostly a certain amount of predictability, though that aspect was, as I’ve already said, well clothed with creativity.
Looking at it dispassionately, the big-reveal plot twists were not terribly surprising, and I saw the most crucial of them coming from quite some distance away, but the author has incorporated so many imaginative details that it really doesn’t matter. If you were a child of the 1960s and 1970s, you’ll catch the many pop culture references, and either smile or groan at the memories they inspire. If you’re a child of the new century, some of these might float right over. It also helps to be familiar with young adult literature of that era: Neil Smith indulges in some name-dropping which just might be playing to his contemporaries (he’s fifty)versus teens of right now.
There is, predictably, redemption of a sort after the reveal of the big and angsty main event, but it didn’t get sloppy, and – rather satisfyingly in an artistic sense – all of the questions weren’t resolved. Some random stuff is just left there, throbbing gently in dark corners of the room, never explained. And – huge point in favour – some bits are very funny.
Several days after my reading, and after quite a lot of pondering, I’ve decided that Boo is a winner. It’s a fine thing just as it stands. I hope to high heaven (pun intended) that the author can resist the temptation to concoct a sequel. I don’t regret my $20 investment, and I hope the writer gets a decent royalty check, because he’s put a ton of work into this book and it shows.
This is Neil Smith’s first novel, though he has also written a prize-winning collection of short stories, 2008’s Bang Crunch. That one’s on my wish list as of right now.
Buy this for your teen, and then borrow it back for yourself. And keep an eye on this writer.
Another review well worth checking out is here: