Author: Blythe Woolston
Genre: Contemporary, Young Adult
Publisher: Carolrhoda Books
Publication date: August 2010
Hardcover: 208 pages
The Freak Observer is rich in family drama, theoretical physics, and an unusual, tough young woman Loa Lindgren. When her younger sister dies, 16-year-old Loa’s clockwork galaxy collapses. As she spins off on her own, Loa’s mind ambushes her with vivid nightmares and sadistic flashbacks a textbook case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But there are no textbook fixes for Loa’s short-circuiting brain. If she keeps her eyes open and her neurons busy, there’s less chance for her imagination to brew up nightmares and panic attacks. Maybe then she’ll be able to pry her world from the clutches of death. The Freak Observer is a startling debut about death, life, astrophysics, and finding beauty in chaos.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: It won the 2011 William C. Morris Award
The Freak Observer is the 2011 winner of the William C. Morris Award. This award is given by YALSA to a debut book published by a first-time author writing for young adults and I have decided to try and read all of this year’s nominees. So far, I’ve read Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride (which didn’t work for me) and Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey (which I loved without reservations). The Freak Observer falls somewhere in between those two for me. It is clearly a very good book, an excellent debut and I liked it – but I have to say that it didn’t completely wow me.
Loa Lindgren is having a terrible time: she just witnessed a close friend’s death in a car accident and has been having nightmares and panic attacks ever since. This is only the tip of the iceberg though, as Loa’s disjointed narrative (back and forth, back and forth) will eventually disclose. Financial disaster has hit Loa’s family hard and she and her mother have to work while her father tries to find any work available. And all of that come in the aftermath of her younger sister Asta’s death a year before from Rett Syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder where development is normal for the first 6–18 months of a child’s life, stagnating and regressing thereafter.
The story then revolves around Loa, and her family trying to find their way again, after living so many years orbiting around Asta, who was effectively the centre of their family life. To speak of “revolving” and “orbit” is quite a propos since what keeps Loa marginally grounded and sane is her love for physics and maths. At school, she gets to work on a special physics project about Freak Observers – a hypothesised self-aware entity that pops-up in the universe to make sense of the chaos. She works on the project as she reminisces about the past year, all the while fighting severe PTSD (paranoia, nightmares, having visions of death) with little to no help as her parents have their own problems and they don’t have money to afford treatment. Loa herself needs to be her own Freak Observer of her own small universe and make sense of the reining chaos in her life.
More than that though, the reader too has to be a Freak Observer too, as the narrative is as fragmented a Loa’s brain seem to be. Perhaps, this might explain the causal distance I felt when reading the novel. Maybe Loa’s narrative and life being too fragmentary and almost emotionless is what kept me from being wowed. I don’t know. I do know this is strictly a “me” thing and I do know that those very qualifiers (fragmented narrative and lack of emotion) are expertly incorporated as symptoms of Loa’s PTSD – as both story and storytelling. I do appreciate that as I appreciated many other things about the novel. Like the lovely writing, for example:
Ghosts are mostly habits of memory. In an old house like this, everything you touch is connected to another moment. The cupboard is full of ghosts. The bookmarks between pages are ghosts. The photographs of my unattractive ancestors on the wall are most certainly ghosts. Even the morning glories that grow by the back porch are ghosts. My mom plants them every year. She soaks the little black seeds and nicks them with a nail file so they will be able to crack open and grow. She plants them because there were morning glories blooming the day she came to the house.
I specially admired how the author deftly allowed the reader to feel an immense sympathy for Loa’s parents who at first might come across as abusers. The book opens as Loa’s father hits her with a toilet brush. When Loa has an accident and ends up in hospital, her mother’s first reaction is to wonder about how they are going to pay for the bill. As the story progresses it is easy to see how both are simply good, loving people, struggling with the terrible thing that has happened to their child and dire financial distress and doing regretful things as a result. These are not excuses but explanations and in the end, there is a sense that this family is moving forward, in the process of healing and that includes Loa as well. It is a sad story but also a beautiful and hopeful one. You know, the sort that wins well-deserved awards.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: Another quote that I loved:
“Take care, Loa,” says the driver.
I swear, If I head that shit one more time, I will not be responsible for my actions.
I know how to take care.
I can wash dishes, pull out slivers, sharpen a chainsaw, thaw out frozen pipes, pack a lunch, mop floors, serve five hot plates to a table, get poop stains out of little boy’s underwear, and sterelize a nasograstic tube.
What do you want me to take care of?
Shall I stop the glaciers from melting?
How about malaria? For, like fifty cents, I can keep a family in Africa from dying of malaria.
If I get knocked around with a toilet plunger, does that mean somebody else doesn’t? Ok. It’s a deal. I’m your girl.
I’ ll take care of it.
Rating: 8- Excellent
Reading Next: A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle
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