Two days before leaving for an eleven day road trip to central Australia, I’d almost reached the bottom of my ‘to read’ pile. In desperate need of extra reading material, I hit the paperback section at my local Big W and came across the shelf dotted with John Green’s work. Paper Towns was the only John Green title I had actually read and it wasn’t entirely satisfying, but I had enjoyed his style of humour and figured, why not? I was waiting to see The Fault in Our Stars on the big screen so I left that one alone. Instead, I picked up his debut novel, Looking for Alaska and stowed it in my backpack. Don’t worry – I paid for it first.
The blurb, though captivating, didn’t give much away, so I’ll let you in on a few plot points. Dissatisfied with life in Florida, awkward teenager Miles Halter moves to boarding school at Culver Creek, Alabama, eager to find new friends, new interests and a new life. On his first day, Miles is introduced to Alaska Young, who he immediately claims to be ‘the hottest girl in all of human history’. At the conclusion of their first conversation, Miles and Alaska form an agreement – she will find him a girlfriend and he will find her a way out of ‘the labyrinth’. And so they embark on a rollercoaster year at boarding school. Miles narrates in first person and though this makes it easy to relate to his character, he is an unreliable narrator and we can never truly gain a complete understanding of the events of the story.
With the first four hours of the road trip down, the book made its debut in my hands. At first, as I was introduced to Miles and his parents, I still wasn’t satisfied. I met his boarding school roommate Chip Martin, nicknamed the Colonel, and stumbled upon the backside-biting swan that lived by the lake at Culver Creek. And of course, I was introduced to Alaska, and ‘if people were rain … she was a hurricane’. Still, it felt too American, so much so that I couldn’t relate to anyone or anything.
I go to seek a Great Perhaps. – Francois Rabelois
Early in the novel, we learn that Miles likes to memorise ‘last words’. At first, it seemed like this was just another quirky character trait but soon, these words came to mean much more. For example, Miles talks about the words of Francois Rabelois before he leaves for boarding school, hoping to find a ‘Great Perhaps’ before he dies. We are frequently reminded of these words as Miles wades through the highs and lows of teenage life, searching for meaning.
Again, towards the end of the story, Dr Hyde gives the students an exam using Alaska’s favourite quote – “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” (It is noted in the end matter that these words were historically spoken by Simon Bolivar, but they weren’t necessarily his last words). Alaska frequently refers to Bolivar’s labyrinth as a place of suffering and wonders if the labyrinth symbolises life or death.
My first impression of Alaska was a negative one. She was melodramatic and bossy, and quite often I struggled to understand her. Yet, her character was mysterious; you could never guess what she was going to say or do next. It was this aspect of her character that was so attractive. As we wandered around Alice Springs, I realised that I was starting to like Alaska more and more. Green had written her character so that you felt the same feelings towards her that Miles felt. I was confused by her emotional outbursts, but eager to get closer to her. Angry at her contradictions, but drawn in by her intellect and fun-loving nature.
After two wonderful nights in Alice Springs and a day hiking around the magnificent Kings Canyon, I found myself turning pages faster than the wheels were spinning on our Hyundai. This was due to a simple but effective structural device – the division of the book into two main parts. The first section was named Before and the second section, After. As a reader, there was nothing I wanted to know more than what would happen as the story moved into its second part. There were no chapters, in a traditional sense. Instead, the novel began ‘One Hundred and Thirty-six Days Before’ and gradually counted down to the second part, finishing ‘One Hundred and Thirty-six Days After’. This unique structure created incredible suspense and I couldn’t stop reading. I just wanted to reach that defining moment, the eye of the storm.
I reached part two on our last night at Ayers Rock Resort. With the majority of our sight-seeing over, I was looking forward to many hours in the car to finish the book. So, as we hit the Stuart Highway I joined Miles in the search for Alaska and before I knew it, he was writing his final essay for Dr Hyde, one hundred and thirty-six days after. Needless to say, riding the emotional wave of teenage angst all the way to the finish line was extremely rewarding. I couldn’t wait to tell people about this book. It was heart-warming, wonderfully written and filled with a delightful selection of awkward and life changing moments typical of adolescent life.