Alabaster, Nick Hirsch
Publisher: Prizm Books
Genre: LGBT (G), Contemporary, Bullying, Romance, Magic Realism
Length: 16 pages
Reviewer: Kazza K
This is one of the best short YA stories I’ve read. It’s an awfully hard book to review because it is short and because of the use of metaphors and magical realism to convey meaning outside of the standard narrative – Alan’s dad leaves, a missed (idealized) father/family, a mother who shuts down, dysfunction sets in, school bullying is chronic, Alan now feeling like he is nothing more than alabaster – leaving dust on his sheets, seeing cracks and fissures on his skin, no longer flesh and blood –
There was a time when he was flesh like everyone else. His skin had been soft, layered over rivers of rhythmic blood. He’d had a body full of water, sweat and tears. He’d liked to run and laugh and dance with clouds behind his ears. His father was there, then, and would push him on the swings at the park, higher and higher until he could grab the stars out of the sky.
There is difficulty at home, Alan’s mother posing questions when Alan left for school early – was he visiting his father, was he? Making sure his mother is gone before he leaves. Something that is played out over and over across many different counties of the children of divorce. At school Alan has to deal with Roger, a one time friend, now first-degree bully –
Things changed at school once his father was gone. It began with a boy named Roger, who always wanted to prove he was tough when there were girls around…..
“Hey, faggot,” Roger was loud enough to get everyone’s attention.
Alan didn’t look up. He pretended not to notice and hoped Roger would just get bored and find another target……
“Keep reading if you like dick.”
Some of the girls laughed.
“My dad says reading is for fairies,” another boy said.
“Are you a fairy?” someone else asked…..
“Hold him, ” Roger said from far away.
A shudder passed through Alan’s chest. He coughed, and dust spilled from between his lips. Roger punched Alan in the face while two other boys held his arms….
Roger punched him again, this time in the stomach, and a cascade of gravel fell out of Alan’s mouth. Roger hit him in the jaw, and grey stone flaked away like shale.
Roger was beating him to death. His mother was sneering and his father was laughing and he felt none of it. He said nothing and Roger beat him as hard as he had ever been beaten until the substitute arrived and everyone pretended that they had no idea, or that they wanted to help him….
Alan said nothing and silently he turned to stone.
That is just a part of a very powerful chapter.
The period covered in this book spans from year 7 through to Alan’s sophomore year –
Grade school ended, as it tends to. Alan was placed in an advanced studies program across town, while Roger ended up at the district school. Only two or three other kids from Alan’s neighbourhood went to the same school as he did, and they quickly formed a silent agreement to pretend they’d never met.
– and it is done in an unbelievably seamless manner saying much in an incredibly small word count of around 3,750 words. And in those 3,750 words life is accepted, life changes, and much hope is generated –
Somewhere in the middle of winter, sophomore year, the bus became important. Alan was there early, mostly just to get out of the house.
There was a boy sitting next to him, glowing brightly. Alan looked around to see if anyone else noticed, but no one did. They never, ever did.
“Want to sit down?” The boy asked.
It took time to form words. How did you talk to sunlight?
“Sure,” he said.
The boy was made of colors, the opposite of Alan in every conceivable way. His skin was copper, his hair melted gold. Light spilled from his pores, his smile, his eyes. Alan wondered how no one on the bus was blind from all that light….
Alan and Luke spent twenty minutes riding a cloud to school, and when they got there Alan felt the ground trembling again. He thought of his father and the swings again, for the first time since that day with Roger in seventh grade.
The book ends on a good note, obtuse to a certain extent, but full of hope – no more bullies, Luke makes Alan happy, a short note to his mother, and us the readers, and a reaction that makes the journey a good one.
The prose in this book is lyrical and metaphorical, along with the use of derogatory words that help drive the realism of bullying home in amongst the surreal components. I read this to my son, who has suffered bullying, and he thought it powerful and well handled. I truly hope Alabaster receives a wide readership because it deserves it. Highly recommended reading for young teens up.