Friday, February 4, 2011

Review: Nothing by Janne Teller, translated by Martin Aitken

Nothing wasn't on my radar at all. And then it walked out of ALA with a Printz Honor, along with the Batchelder award for best translated novel. Suddenly it was a must-read, and that was even before I saw the summary

NothingSet in a fictional town in Denmark, the lives of a class of seventh graders is turned upside down on the first day of school when Pierre Anthon seems to suffer an existential crisis. He stands up and declares that "nothing matters" so he isn't going to continue going to school. Instead he starts spending his day in a plum tree, pelting his former classmates alternately with plums or barbs about the uselessness of life.

So the class decides they need to prove to Pierre Anthon that there is meaning in life. They start collecting items that have meaning to them, and piling them up in an abandoned saw mill. When the heap of meaning doesn't seem to be impressive enough, the real challenge begins, as the students individually challenge each other one at a time to give up something meaningful. It starts small and simple - a pair of earrings, a pair of shoes, boxing gloves - before quickly escalating into hair, pets, adoption certificates and beyond.

The writing in this is just devastating and absolutely beautiful. The design is also top notch, as space is used with great effect. Every couple of chapters there's a page where Agnes foreshadows or drops a bomb on the reader that is only a line or two long and centered in the middle of the page. It's like a punch to the gut. Nothing good comes from of these pages.

Agnes is an excellent choice for a narrator. She is at once an outsider and a complicit accessory to the collection of meaning - her tribute is made fairly early so she gets off relatively easily, but she also plays a part in ramping up the escalation. She has a somewhat distant voice, and about halfway through she starts unexpectedly engaging in silly word play that made me wonder if a psychotic break was imminent. And then there's her aforementioned empty pages. An excellent and haunting choice.

The number one comparison this book seems to elicit is to Lord of the Flies, and I have to admit I haven't actually read that one. But from what I've heard, the comparisons are accurate. "The Lottery" is another one, though at least the violence in this one is explained, if no less senseless. It's not a happy book. I had to put the book down a couple of times, just for a moment to compose myself, as the tributes to the heap of meaning escalated. This is a book that will haunt its readers, and it's no wonder it was showered with multiple awards this year.


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