It’s to Miller’s immense credit that Iris does not feel like some carefully concocted example of—to twist a term—“hysterical precociousness” sprinkled with a few moments of epiphanic loss of innocence. Iris walks into every room in this book equally scared and brave. Sometimes she makes terrible, weak, selfish decisions. Sometimes she has moments of peculiar bravery where she doesn’t seem to grow up as much as grow beyond. For instance, late in the novel, when the double-crossings begin, Iris infiltrates Prisom Party to an uncomfortable degree. At her most selfish and peer-pressured, she ends up in bed with the boy of her dreams.
It’s a strange moment, as if the chemicals in Iris’s teenage body have overcome any rational input her brain could give. “Iris, you don’t have to be lonely anymore,” he says. And then she says, “I wasn’t lonely,” and turns away. The crowd cheers; she’s back. That kind of woozy, oscillating characterization helps Iris carry the novel, and become the prism through which other characters must draw their own lines in the sand. Iris recalls two of the most vivid literary young adults, Huckleberry Finn and David Balfour, in her ability to move within the novel and achieve a resonant, honest grace.
As the plot winds down after the climax, it becomes obvious that the dead teenagers—Dalia and Justin—loomed over this novel more so than I’d expected when it began. What first seemed like cheeky quirks for Jonah and Iris reveal themselves to be coping strategies. In so many ways, the twists and turns of life at Mariana allowed them to forget their losses for a few moments. “Grief never goes away,” thinks Iris. “This doesn’t mean you can’t ever be happy again. It just means the space allotted for feeling happy is smaller. Isn’t that right, Murrow? I thought, now more from habit than conversation.”
Miller has given readers a subtle, poignant, and empathetic view of young people caught up in grief, along with an effective mystery novel. And it tore my heartstrings when, in the novel’s final scene, Iris says, “The story that I clutched to myself, more tightly than the book in my hands, was ugly and strange. But it was also marvelous. It was mine.” And you know what else? The words felt fresh.
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