Everything is Fine (and other lies I tell myself) is the latest young adult novel written by British author Cathy Brett. She is currently a university lecturer in design and has had a colourful career designing in a diverse range of industries. Combining her passion for art and her love of writing, Brett writes a beautiful tale about the trials of grief and adolescence in the disguise of sandy Pebbleton beaches and a WWI love story.
The adolescent in question is depressed Ester Armstong, who after a rough school year of watching her parents fight and her younger brother, Gulliver, pretend to be a thug, wants nothing more than to get on with the holidays. Her only comfort is her elder brother, Max, who is currently interstate at university. Suddenly, her home life gets turned upside down, when her mother organises a movie crew to use their beach house as the backdrop for a WWI themed film. Around the same time, Ester discovers love letters, dated around 1915, hidden behind the wallpaper of her room. By witnessing the two stories of the movie and the letters unfold, Ester slowly begins to realise her own reality and starts to find happiness again.
As the title indicates, Ester constantly makes jokes about how everyone is lying about their realities. This is enforced, not only in words, but also through surreal images of Ester and her experiences. It is not often illustrations are used frequently in Young adult novels, however, the childlike appearances of the drawing gives the story more impact and invite the reader to join Ester’s version of ‘reality’. A line in an email Ester sent to Max expresses her perspective quite well.
Last day of school today. Hurrah! Mum’s still crazy Dad is Kind of a Zombie… But I guess you want the Disney version, so they’re fine. We’re all fine.”
Despite being rather heavy in its historical context, the story is told in a simplistic style. This is both good and bad as it allows the illustrations to give the emotional impact rather than through the words. However, it took me until chapter three to fully grasp the impact of the images. But once I got a hold on it, I was completely blown away. Therefore experiences may vary between readers depending on how visually minded they are.
Once the meaning of the images becomes clear, Ester’s world suddenly opens up. Especially her deep connection to people that she never interacts with physically in the story. This essentially allowing the reader to fall in love with characters they never meet. The characters in question are the two WWI lovers, Freddie and Dorothea, and Ester’s elder brother, Max. By using this engaging strategy, Brett creates an unexpected and heart breaking climax when Ester’s world is shattered to bring about her actual reality, a reality that the reader also doesn’t want to experience.
By shattering Ester’s reality, Brett makes it clear that the real world is always the better place to be. If you are stuck in your own world it can become impossible to move on and find beauty in your future, an experience that Ester demonstrates quite well when emailing Max.
Max, I can’t bare this summer without you here! Mum has violated my personal space, Dad is treating me like a baby, my best friend is a traitor and my room has been destroyed! All I need now is for Gull to set fire to my surfboard and I’ll have the full teenage angst boxset! Please, please, please come home!”
There are also delightful quotes from war-themed poems found throughout the novel. Ester uses these to describe the events occurring in her life, adding to the dreary feeling surrounding the letters and giving more depth to the plot being filmed right outside Ester’s home. The poems include John Keat’s ‘When I have Fears’ and ‘Ode to Nightingale’ as well as Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem of the Doomed’ among others. Ester had to hand in an essay about these poems before the start of the story and they have often served as inspiration for her humorous inner monologue as a result. This also helps tie the themes of war and dying young into the novel.
It should be noted that although this may sound like depressing story about controlling your own reality, there is no content that is unsuitable for younger readers. In fact, Ester’s sarcastic thoughts and awkward teenage situations make it just as fun as it is gloomy. In other words, this book may be classed as ‘Young Adult’ but could also be a part of the 11-13 year old, ‘preteen’ genre.
Overall, this is a visual novel that inspires readers to look beyond their own world to see the good that comes with the bad. Brett combines surreal drawings with a powerful theme to make the reader fall in love with what they never had to begin with.
More of Brett’s work, both written and artistic can be found on her blog.
Publisher: Headline Book Publishing (May 9, 2013)