Having topped The New York Times bestseller list with her 2016 debut, This Is Where It Ends, Dutch author Marieke Nijkamp is back with another young adult fiction novel, Before I Let Go.
The book follows teenagers and “best friends” Corey and Kyra in a remote Alaskan town called Lost Creek. Corey has to leave Lost Creek so her mother can take a nursing job in Canada while Corey attends college. So the girls make plans to visit each other during Corey’s term break.
I use the term “best friends” in quotations because as soon as Corey settles into her new life, she promptly forgets Kyra who, by the way, is bipolar. In fact, Corey fails to read or respond to the letters sent by Kyra. Alas, the novel opens with Corey travelling back to Lost Creek after Kyra dies.
Nijkamp switches her narrative by telling this story from a myriad of different views. Chapters vary from Corey’s “real time” recounting of her six days in Lost Creek to going back in time from months to years before Kyra’s death. It also includes phone calls, letters and postcards (both sent and unsent), and finally a play complete with stage directions.
Nijkamp, born in 1986, might have missed all those 1970s mystery shows on TV where the heroine arrives in a small town that harbours a “secret”. Said heroine attempts to uncover that secret while avoiding getting murdered by the townsfolk, who must keep their skeletons in the closet at any cost.
Before I Let Go certainly evokes that same sort of hokey thriller drama, which is to say this book is an uneven effort. The creepy inhabitants of Lost Creek are definitely hiding something, and by the end of the book all is revealed, just like an episode of Charlie’s Angels or Wonder Woman.
The problem is, Corey isn’t particularly a sympathetic character. She dumps Kyra and their relationship after moving away, and then bemoans the changes in the place she left behind. Chapter after chapter, her behaviour grows increasingly grating.
Returning over and over to the image of the “best friend” she remembers, Corey refuses to accept that Kyra went through personal changes while on her own – perhaps due in part to Corey ghosting Kyra for more than half a year.
Now that she’s dead, it’s Kyra’s turn to ghost Corey. From paintings done by Kyra that appear to foretell the future to pictures of a neighbour’s garden they used to tend, now in full bloom in the middle of winter, everything is peppered with a soupcon of the supernatural.
Unfortunately, this makes for a bumpy read. Before I Let Go is neither full paranormal fiction nor truly rooted in reality. The unexplained magic is more confusing than mystical. Couple this with the lack of character development, not to mention the lacklustre paint-by-numbers supporting cast, and it becomes the final nail in the coffin.
Nijkamp has a genial way with words, and she evokes the crisp wintery days and nights of Lost Creek well. But more character development and obfuscating the ultimate reveal would have been welcomed.
To be fair, Before I Let Go does tackle the sombre topic of mental illness and teenage suicide. Of particular help are the author’s notes on how teenagers with suicidal thoughts or tendencies can get support. In Malaysia, you can find a list of help centres at suicide.org.
Before I Let Go
Author: Marieke Nijkamp
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire, young adult contemporary fiction