A book by Caren J. Werlinger is never just a book. You know, going in, that it will get into you, move you, change you. I wasn’t in the right headspace to tackle it when this second edition was released in April, complete with a short story, Just a Normal Christmas, that was initially published in the Ylva anthology Do You Feel What I Feel. Which is why it took me so long to read it.
Jules fled her small town in Ohio as soon as she could and has come back as seldom as she could get away with since. She can’t avoid her grandfather’s funeral however, and as with each visit back home, memories take over, memories she usually feels better off ignoring. Unable to stop Jules from slowly pulling away, her partner Kelli turns for help to Jules’s oldest friend and ex, Donna, who never stopped loving her. As she retreats from her own life, Jules gets caught into Ronnie’s, a teenager from her hometown.
There is so much more to this story, from the sweet childhood friend to the stern grandmother, the absentee mother to the elusive neighbour, the ex’s partner, the new colleague. The secrets, the unspoken, the fears and hopes.
I can see why some readers were disconcerted with the flashbacks and the flashbacks within the flashbacks. I had trouble here and there to keep up with the timeline of the story. I didn’t mind, however. It added to the sense of being lost and tossed around, which made me feel closer to what Jules was going through. While as a person Jules seems very lovable – two kind and smart women appear to love her deeply –, she’s not the most likeable character. She comes off as insensitive at times, but I don’t think any of her actions, however misguided, stems from selfishness. She’s pushing so hard against the pain that she has no energy left for others, even those who would love nothing better than to help.
As the author wrote on her blog, “this isn’t a happy or light story”, yet, strangely enough, despite some truly dramatic and hard parts, the feeling I am left with after reading isn’t one of sadness. It reminds me of the sensation you get when, after being overwhelmed by a wave, you get your head out of the water and breathe. That first breath is hard, it hurts, but it’s also full of life and triumphant.