Book Review: Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley
“...the thing he loved about fiction was that there were rarely yes-or-no answers when it came to characters. The world is complex, he told me. Humans are too.”
Yet another great YA novel, Cath Crowley’s Words in Deep Blue is set in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia and follows two former best friends, Henry and Rachel. (Side note: I am loving all of these great Australian authors!) Henry and Rachel grew up together and were best friends, until Rachel moved with her brother Cal and their mother to the coast. Three years go by, when Rachel moves back to Gracetown after a tumultuous year. Her beloved brother Cal drowns; she fails Year 12 and is understandably depressed. She and her mom are shells of their former selves.
Rachel moves in with her aunt and gets a job working at Howling Books, Henry’s family’s secondhand store. (Talk about goals.) Henry and Rachel have not spoken in years; Henry thinks they lost touch because Rachel did not want to be friends anymore, but really Rachel was in love with Henry and wrote a letter telling him, but she thinks he is trying to let her down easy, when in fact, he never got the letter. Now Henry has his own set of problems. His girlfriend Amy, who he keeps claiming is the love of his life, breaks up with him, the bookstore is not doing well, his parents are divorced, and his mom wants to sell their building. Can these two find a way to work through the past? It won’t be easy when no one knows that Cal died, and Henry still thinks Amy hung the moon. (Spoiler alert: she is the worst.) Once Rachel sees Henry, she doesn’t even want to kiss him; she can’t seem to feel much of anything since Cal died.
As a large part of this story takes place in a secondhand bookstore, there are so many little nuggets for readers. The heart of Howling Books is the Letter Library. It is a special section of the bookstore where readers can write letters in the books and make notes in them, but you cannot purchase those books. It is unique to Howling Books and is part of the reason they are so well-known. In between chapters of Words in Deep Blue, there were snippets of letters from different people, mostly between Henry’s sister George and “Pytheas”, and some between Rachel and Henry. My favorite one of these is in Great Expectations, where Henry’s dad Michael writes to his ex-wife Sophia. He underlines the passage, “You have been in every line I have ever read…. in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea.” That is quite possibly the loveliest line I have ever read. It makes me want to go pick up Great Expectations.
Part of what I love most about YA novels is the incredible secondary characters. George, Henry’s younger sister, is edgy, a bit of a loner, and spends all of her time between the bookstore and the family flat above the store. She writes letters to a guy who calls himself Pytheas. Their letters are exchanged in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I am a sucker for an Austen retelling, but I have always steered clear of anything with zombies in it. However, because of George and Pytheas, I am inclined to give it a shot. As you read on, you discover Pytheas is actually Cal, and it sucks even more once you realize that George, this hard, unapproachable girl, is in love with Pytheas. But luckily, she eventually befriends Martin, who is delightful. Martin really likes George, but understands that her heart is somewhere else, so he is content with just being there for her as a friend. Sweet, adorable Martin. Everyone needs a Martin in her life.
Words in Deep Blue is a story about love, friendship, and most importantly, grief. Rachel is grieving the loss of her brother; Henry is grieving the loss of his relationship with Amy. But as the story goes on, everyone grieves the loss of Howling Books. George and Henry’s whole lives have been spent above and in the bookstore. Michael and Sophia, their parents, are not only grieving the loss of their marriage, but also the end of their lovechild. But books, and specifically the Letter Library, help them get through their grief. After reading Words in Deep Blue, all I want to do is work in a bookstore and surround myself with old books.
As much I enjoyed the love story between Henry and Rachel, I found myself more drawn to the story of the bookstore. Obviously as a reader, I want others to enjoys books as much as I do, but practically speaking, small independently-owned bookstores and secondhand bookstores are generally not able to compete with Amazon and other big retailers. I grieved along with Henry and his family for the loss of Howling Books. I do not handle change well, so I connect with George and her desire for everything to stay the same.
If you enjoy stories about reading and young love, Words in Deep Blue is the book for you. I adored this book; it is definitely one of my favorites of the year. 5 stars!
Let me know what other great Australian authors I should read.