Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Review: Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Found via: Best Fiction for Young Adults 2011 nominations

Last Night I Sang to the Monster

While I have mixed feelings about the existence of the new BFYA list, one thing I am very positive about is Last Night I Sang to the Monster deserves to be on all sorts of "best of" lists. It's nominated for the Nerds Heart YA contest and I hope it goes far! This is definitely a title that needs more exposure.

At 18 years old, Zach is already in rehab for alcoholism. He was brought in for treatment after suffering severe alcohol poisoning, and claims to not remember what happened just before his last drinking binge. He knows it was bad, and remembering just hurts too much. Instead he drifts through the program, remaining silent most of the time, only opening up occasionally to his roommate Rafael. Rafael is also an alcoholic, but is about old enough to be Zach's father, and is much more at peace with the rehab program than Zach is.

As Zach makes his way through the rehabilitation program in fits and starts, we learn about his life before rehab - living with a brother with anger issues and an alcoholic father who hid bottles of booze where Zach could easily find them. Adam, Zach's ever-patient therapist, helps guide Zach through his journey, but Zach is the one who must choose to be sober, and in rehab there are no easy answers.

I have so much love for everything that's going on in this book. While there are several colorful supporting characters, none of them fall into outlandish stereotype territory. Every patient clearly has addiction issues, but they are all handling sobriety in their own ways. Some have come to the center voluntarily like Rafael, but others are there on court order and plan on staying just long enough to avoid jail time before returning to their old ways.

This is also an extremely chatty novel. Zach spends a lot of time in his own head and fills the narrative with vocal tics like well, so, look and okay. It's never enough to become annoying, and it definitely adds a sense of intimacy to this story. The casual tone makes it feel very raw and immediate, like we really are in Zach's head and he hasn't had time to censor or edit himself.

One thing that really impressed me about this novel is that even though most of the cast is male, there is a lot of crying going on. Zach cries with some frequency, as do other patients and doctors. But what's striking about all of these tears is no one is torn down for it. No one is called a fag or is told that he's crying like a girl - Zach doesn't even think these things about himself. Considering how men are so often socialized to see emotions, especially ones that lead to crying, as un-manly, I thought this was remarkable. Also, Zach is Latino, and Latino cultures are often portrayed as steeped in machismo that would also discourage tears. It's always a positive thing to see difficult emotions and emotional reactions handled respectfully and realistically.

I was also impressed by Zach's journey in rehab. Without giving too much away, I can safely say that Zach's road to recovery isn't so much a clear path as it is a roller coaster. He doesn't progressively get better - at least not obviously. His story is much more along the lines of "one step forward, two steps back." While sometimes it's frustrating to see Zach slip backwards in some way, it's also great to a complex look at alcoholism and recovery.

Speaking of complex, after checking out Last Night I Sang to the Monster, I recommend checking out Liz B's list at Teacozy Beyond Pap Finn for other YA novels where "an alcoholic (including recovering alcoholic) is portrayed as something other than the evil, abusive person." A great list!
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