You’re Waiting For a Train: Neverworld Wake Review

Book Blurb for Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl

Once upon a time, back at Darrow-Harker School, Beatrice Hartley and her five best friends were the cool kids, the beautiful ones. Then the shocking death of Jim – their creative genius and Beatrice’s boyfriend – changed everything.

One year after graduation, Beatrice is returning to Wincroft – the seaside estate where they spent so many nights sharing secrets, crushes, plans to change the world – hoping she’ll get to the bottom of the dark questions gnawing at her about Jim’s death.

But as the night plays out in a haze of stilted jokes and unfathomable silence, Beatrice senses she’s never going to know what really happened.

Then a mysterious man knocks on the door. Blithely, he announces the impossible: time for them has become stuck, snagged on a splinter that can only be removed if the former friends make the harshest of decisions.

Now Beatrice has one last shot at answers… and at life.

And so begins the Neverworld Wake.

My Review

Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a whole mood. I’m usually wary of too frequent metaphors and similes in fiction, particularly when they are unique and non-intuitive (cough, Margaret Atwood, cough), but I have to say I wasn’t even mad about the sometimes excessive use of similes and metaphors in this story. There was something just off and dream-like about the whole scenario that attempting to describe much of the experience would be really difficult to do without constantly likening or comparing it to something more tangible.

I was also prepared to be madder about how early on the turning point happened in the story—I wanted more “normal” time getting to know the characters, but it actually turned out for the best. When the characters get trapped in a moment in time during which they have to collectively solve their friend’s death in order to break free, I was expecting it to be a Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof timeline where the whole book details about half a day. Boy was I wrong. According to the whacked-out temporality of the Neverworld, the characters could have mentally lived through the equivalent of years or even decades (centuries were even put forward as a possibility) while their bodies were trapped in one moment.

The narrative voice was entertaining and kept things moving along at a pace that was almost break-neck, which is somehow kind of genius when the scenario is about literally being stuck in time, unable to move. Whole sequences are summarized, as characters get stuck in repetitive acts, trying to improve their outcomes by living the same time over and over again like respawning to beat a level in a video game. The problem comes when what they must improve upon is outside of their given window of time—then they have to figure out how to get unstuck. This is where it gets all Inception—“you’re waiting for a train,” etc.

The book also has some really resonant and beautiful themes (if they are a bit clichéd in young/new adult fiction) about the fleetingness of life, and the importance of making the most of the moment. Also about not letting past mistakes keep you from going on and doing your best. There were some really poignant reflections on life and people, and the one that hit me the most was another metaphor:

“We are all anthologies. We are each thousands of pages long, filled with fairy tales and poetry, mysteries and tragedy, forgotten stories in the back no one will ever read.”

Neverworld Wake

I not only think this is a surprisingly comprehensive metaphor for real people, it also was applicable to the characters in the story—I didn’t come out of this whole experience feeling like I knew any of them. Which would usually be something I would view as a weakness in the story, because it limits how much you can identify with the characters or even like them. And there wasn’t a whole lot to like about any of them. I didn’t know why Whitley and the narrator were ever friends, I didn’t know why Jim selected the narrator for his one-and-only (although various explanations are suggested), I don’t know why Whitley and Cannon stayed friends after they broke up, or why Martha was such a ridiculous “grand gesture” person. The only thing I sort of understood was Cannon and Kipling’s relationship.

But the dynamic I did understand was how they were altogether—how people somehow end up in a friend group that doesn’t really function cohesively on the individual level. Yet, the very imperfection of their understanding of each other kind of funnels into the unreality they face—the unreality that they themselves present to the world. And the revelations when they did come were also incomplete, bespeaking a whole different set of stories in the anthology of their lives and characters. And it kind of fit with the story. It made it more satisfying that it wasn’t completely satisfying, because that was the point. The quest was to find out the truth about one member of the group which they then thought would provide illumination to their problem—they found out the truth and more, but it only served to reveal how much more was left out of focus beyond it that they would never find out.

The one thing that persistently bothered me about how things worked was that the rules of the Neverworld were seemingly arbitrary, but yet determined by the individuals it affected, i.e. the friend group. If they subconsciously determined the rules, I wanted them to be able to break them, at least on some level. But, they didn’t, and had to fulfill the terms of the Neverworld ultimatum from the beginning. Which was a bit of a let-down. For it to have been unalterable from the beginning, does somewhat undermine the whole struggle in between. Yes, the character and reader both come out with increased knowledge, but does it make any real difference?

Anyway, the experience of reading this book was mind-stretching and entertaining in equal measure, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants a fast-paced, trippy, cerebral, whodunit type of story.

View all my reviews

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