ARC Review: Underneath by Sarah Jamila Stevenson

UnderneathUnderneath by Sarah Jamila Stevenson
Release date: June 8th, 2013
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My rating: ★★★☆☆

*This is a review of an uncorrected proof, and quotes/excerpts may therefore differ from the final copy.

I’m in the zone, quiet, just me and the other end of the pool beckoning me, coming inexorably closer with every stroke. My happy place. One of the reasons I swim. Really, the only reason I—

ohgod, ohgod—
NO! no. no. no. no—

It sounds like a scream, and I pop my head up, my legs floundering in the pool. Who’s dead? My hands go reflexively to my ears as I try to block out the sounds threatening to drown me.

The wake of the person in the next lane washes over me, pushing chlorinated water into my nose and mouth. I cough and sputter, my sinuses burning, and take a quick glance around. But I’ve realized by now that nobody was screaming. It was all in my head.

Having odd, New Age parents might, under certain circumstances, interfere with a child’s popularity status, but Sunshine “Sunny” Pryce-Shah is admired and accepted by her peers. Above all, she has her older and well-liked cousin, Shiri, to guide her and confide in. Or she used to, and now Sunny’s world is slowly beginning to fall apart. In the stir of Shiri’s suicide, amongst hurt and heartache, a frightening ability awakens within Sunny: she can hear people’s thoughts, or—as Sunny calls it—“underhearing.”

What I expected from this novel was complete uncertainty, not knowing whether Underneath and I were a destined match. I did, however, find the premise curious enough to not only dip a finger in but take a full-body dive. In the end, what I am left with is a back-and-forth bounce, questioning if I like Stevenson’s novel. I did, in fact, enjoy the story, but do I really like this? Well, yes… and no.

If there is one thing I can say about Sarah Jamila Stevenson, it’s that she knows how to write. Her characters are nothing if not rounded, all in coexistence with quality writing and good humor. Because humor—sometimes subtle and quiet, but always evident when mingled in—can easily overthrow critical aspects, I’m thankful that this is not the case. What I find is a balance between easy-flowing text and important issues. This provides an appropriate mood, acknowledging important issues without side-stepping them. With so many troubling tensions laid down—from death and abuse to more trivial problems—what worried me, then, is how Stevenson would handle each one.

More often than not, I find books with jagged pacing. Either quickened or dragged out, the uneven quality lacks a true sense of closure. When an abundance of conflicts arise, I only hope that the author neatly resolves each one. And so I waited. I waited for Stevenson to whip out the ironing board and work out all these crinkles. As I came closer to the last page, however, I began to doubt Stevenson’s intentions in smoothing the storyline in time for the conclusion. Yet in the moment I read the last page—truly, not realizing it was the last page—relief escaped me.

Dearest Sarah Jamila Stevenson: You did it.

The way Stevenson approaches and handles conflict is what I appreciate most about this novel. Nothing feels unesessarily drawn out or lugged at an erratic speed. Sunny contends each issue separately and with a clear head, or as clearly as possible in light of Shiri’s death. Not to forget, of course, Sunny’s mysterious new talent. Rather than mope or blow matters into a hurricane of melodrama, she often suffers quietly but strives for solutions. One of the obvious challenges Sunny faces is how to move on from Shiri’s death, which has left her scared and feeling alone in the world—emotions that her underhearing amplify.

Events that follow Shiri’s funeral prove sour as life takes a plunge. Unable to control her new ability, isolation and worry plague Sunny after discovering what her so-called best friend, Cassie, really thinks of her. This becomes a turning point for Sunny, as the incident ends their friendship. Dejected and booted out from her own herd, tentacles of isolation start to creep and envelope Sunny, but they retreat once she integrates into a new circle. While I feel that such occurrences among friends and “frenemies” prevail in the high school setting, I am left confused.

I wonder why the two former best friends remain fixed in opposition toward each other. It is, after all, a petty tiff in which little—virtually nothing—is said. What is underheard, however, would be a slap to anyone’s face. In this regard, I understand Sunny’s dejection and avoidance, but where does this leave Cassie? Is she simply mean-spirited to use a small argument as enough reason to turn against a friend? I can’t help but toy with the idea of drama here. If more drama about Cassie’s self-absorption, or at least a confrontation, had been added, I think the relationship’s end would have solid ground. As it stands, Cassie might be a complex individual if you peel her layers, but it is in the way she conducts herself that show shallow character.

Two subject matters that bear heavier weight in Underneath surround not only the aftermath of Shiri’s suicide, but the fragility of family. One of the more resilient characters, notable for her growth, is Auntie Mina: Shiri’s mother. Described as submissive and weak—traits that often frustrated a more independent Shiri—I was happy to watch Mina flourish into independence. Her journey is not an easy one, and the death of her only child is something that will either kill or help push her into a brighter direction. With the support of family, Mina finds an inner-strength and—standing tall with dignity—fights her demons.

Family, in fact, plays an important role in the novel. The Pryce-Shah household thoroughly charmed me, and I haven’t felt as amused and touched by a fictional family in some time. Truly, the Pryce-Shahs sparkle with a kind of refreshing quality that can only make me smile. During a time that must be one of the family’s more difficult periods, I loved seeing each member band together. It’s everything a family is and should be: protective and loving, as well as supportive enough to know when it’s time to let go.

I open the front door.

I sense my mother and Auntie Mina both standing behind me, and my mom grabs my arm, but I pull away. I glance at her; she’s holding a golf umbrella.

“Just in case,” she says, the tiniest wry smile twitching at her lips. “I don’t think we’ll need it, but you never know.” I show her the phone in my hand, the numbers 9-1-1 already punched in. She squeezes my shoulder gently this time.

After all that’s been said, why, then, don’t I love this novel? Because while I do enjoy Stevenson’s writing, there are a few aspects that prevent me from feeling enthralled by it. There are some books, while likeable and easy to jump in to, I struggle to find a connection with. Underneath is one of those books. As a character, Sunny’s level-headedness and maturity impress me. At the same time, she does feel overdone in a clean-cut role, especially when it comes to her morals. It’s during such instances—as well as some others—that I feel the writing turns stiff and contributes to my lack of emotional attachment. It’s not that don’t find the characters unrealistic or unrelatable, because I found enjoyment in the time I spent reading Underneath. As much as those small dull moments do little to woo a reader, however, my unattachment is also to blame.

Underneath comes across as a light novel, yet it also grapples with several issues that span from Shiri’s death, Sunny’s underhearing, hopeful romance, betrayals, and domestic abuse. Stevenson conveys the seriousness and discomfort that arises from these conflicts, but through use of humor and steady resolve, she doesn’t allow them to fray the plot. As one can see, Underneath contains a paranormal element, but the novel as a whole comes across as realistic fiction. Although there are times when the story and Sunny’s character fall flat, Underneath is a delightful novel about the pains of loss and relationships. It’s a novel that inspires, because despite life’s hardships, there is always a tomorrow.

We’ll always have yesterday… and today, and tomorrow.

Thank you to Netgalley and Flux for providing a free copy of Underneath in exchange for my honest review.