A touching novel about the clutches of mental illness and dealing with the consequences
All The Bright Places (Penguin, 2015) is a book about mental illness. But, to say it’s a book for those suffering from mental illness isn’t entirely true – it’s a book for those who have lost someone as a result. And that isn’t a bad thing… if you don’t struggle with mental health issues yourself. If you do, you might find Niven’s novel challenging and upsetting, but most of all, relatable.
The young adult book tells the story of Finch and Violet; two suicidal teenagers whose paths intertwine on the ledge of a school bell tower. After losing her sister in a car accident a year ago and blaming herself ever since, Violet intends to jump. Finch, who has a history of irrational behaviour and mood swings, is already up on the ledge contemplating killing himself. He’s no stranger to this predicament, as he spends the majority of his days pondering ways to die, but today is different. Finch doesn’t expect to see Violet and feels compelled to talk her down, adversely becoming Finch’s new reason to live.
However, rumours spread around school that it was actually Violet who talked Finch down and she is hailed as a hero, while Finch remains a “freak”. He has been bullied relentlessly throughout high school, his abnormal behaviour making him an outcast amongst his peers with few friends to rely on. Violet, on the other hand, has always been one of the popular girls with a cute boyfriend and clique of girls to confide in. That was until her world was shattered by the death of her sister, Eleanor, and she became increasingly withdrawn from her social circle.
The two are paired up for a Geography assignment to find the hidden wonders of Indiana, but Finch takes the opportunity to turn the task into a full blown adventure to find the hidden gems of the state, which he dubs “wandering”. It’s a predictably perfect setting for romance to blossom, which Niven manages to write without being entirely contrived. That is because her protagonists are brilliant.
As the story is told through alternating perspectives, we get to know Finch and Violet well individually, rather than just their opinion of one another. Finch is a wonderfully witty character, with a likeable voice that sweeps you along at lightning speed. His thoughts reflect his actions; smart and spontaneous and ever-changing. Finch continually reinvents himself throughout the story, trying to find a persona he feels comfortable with, from ‘Slacker’ Finch to ‘80s’ Finch to ‘All-American’ Finch. It’s a clear coping method, as he would rather be anyone else but himself – that is, around everyone but Violet.
“The great thing about this life of ours is that you can be someone different to everybody.”
Violet’s voice is less compelling than Finch’s, which makes it difficult to like her as much or feel true sympathy over the death of her sister. But, Niven gives her character depth through a love of writing that she shared with Eleanor. Since her passing, Violet finds it impossible to put pen to paper, but wandering with Finch helps her to rediscover this passion. It’s just one of the many ways being with Finch heals Violet and it’s easy to see why – his energy is infectious, vivacious and charming, but he is ultimately unreliable.
Finch needs to find a reason to stay alive every single day; without this, he spirals into a deep depression that he christens being “asleep”. Niven does a great job of conveying the contradiction felt by those who want so badly to live another day, but can’t help but contemplate death. She also epitomises the tyranny of labels through Finch’s disdain for them. Niven emphasises the crucial message that you are more than your mental health – it is merely a part of you, it does not define who you are.
“I want to get away from the stigma they all clearly feel just because they have an illness of the mind as opposed to, say, an illness of the lungs or blood. I want to get away from all the labels. ‘I’m OCD,’ ‘I’m depressed,’ ‘I’m a cutter,’ they say, like these are the things that define them.”
But, the most difficult message of this book is that you can’t always help the ones you love. Despite her best efforts, Violet can’t seem to heal Finch; while she blossoms, he withers. That is why it may be hard for those with mental illness to read All The Bright Places. Even though it tries to empower with positive messages against battling stigma, it ultimately clarifies that there may be no reprieve from depression for some people. It’s a heart-wrenching message for those battling mental health problems; one that they certainly don’t need. It also has a potentially damaging outlook on medication as something that turns the patient into a mindless zombie, failing to acknowledge that medication has the power to change lives.
However, for those who know someone with mental health problems, Niven wants to help them cope with the hardships. Having gone through the same thing herself, the author knows exactly how difficult it can be to process and uses her novel to make sense of the situation. Once you realise this, it explains the shortcomings of the book and transforms it from a depiction of overcoming depression to a beacon of hope after tragedy.