Guest Review: What They Always Tell Us

This review was written by Isaiah Vianese. Isaiah is a poet and writing instructor in New York. You can read his blog and some of his poetry here.

Martin Wilson’s What They Always Tell Us takes its cue from John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip. Like Donovan, Wilson does not distract himself with a message, but focuses on writing a good story. Focusing on the relationship between two brothers, Alex and James, he creates an engrossing and plausible narrative about a stifling Alabama high school.

When we meet Alex and James, we discover sixteen-year-old Alex has recently survived a suicide attempt that isolates him from his former friends. James, a senior, has lost touch with his brother after the incident, but is preoccupied with graduating and moving on to the university of his dreams. Over the course of the novel, the brothers explore friendships, falling in love, and the importance of family—topics explored with great skill.

Wilson’s presentation is nothing short of masterful. First of all, he does not fall for the fads that cripple YA novels. Avoiding text messages, IMs, and emails, he prevents technology from scarring his chapters. The boys talk on the phone and drive nice cars, but the story is not hinged on hardware or pop culture. When they watch TV, Alex and James discuss the content in satisfying but ambiguous terms. In this way, the novel could occur in the eighties, nineties, or present day.

The novel even fails to be dated by its discussion of Alex’s homosexuality. One can only claim that it occurs sometime in the past 30 years—definitely post-Stonewall. Alex falls in love and deals with the challenges of keeping his love life private. Living in the closet has its drawbacks, but it also protects him. If anything, Wilson’s novel acts as a marker for where we are as a culture; while we may have stepped forward from the guilt in Donovan’s I’ll Get There… we have not stepped far. In fact, we seem to be at a standstill. Today, a teen can read What They Always Tell Us and identify with Alex in the same way a reader in the 80s might have (had the novel been written decades earlier).

Of course, this is all to say What They Always Tell Us is a pleasing read. Wilson’s writing is clear and his characters loveable. His book will likely be read for many years, as it deserves.

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