The Book of Laney by Myfanwy Collins – Review

LaneyLast night I finished my second read of Myfanwy Collins’ second novel, The Book of Laney. It is both a daring work and an extraordinary achievement.

Daring, because it takes on one of the most heartbreaking and difficult to comprehend topics imaginable, that of mass killings on school property by students. The novel covers at the outset, unflinchingly, such a scene. Two students board a school bus bound for a sporting event and kill, according to a carefully laid out plan. Daring, because the scene is written as a vision, visited upon the sister of one of the killers. She sees and feels everything her brother felt, describing the event in detail and from his point of view.

“My story starts with a vision.”

Daring, because the author chose to explore the aftermath, not for the families of the victims, but for the family of the perpetrator. I’m not sure this has even been done before. I know a little bit about the genesis of this novel and can only say that it speaks volumes about Myfanwy Collins as a person that this is the direction she chose in telling this story.

And so begins the story of Laney Kates. It begins with horrific violence. Collins doesn’t shrink from this violence, nor does she exploit it. It is simply the story. Laney, newly orphaned and traumatized, is soon shuttled off to live with her grandmother, a woman she barely remembers, who lives rather off the grid in the Adirondacks.

Anyone familiar with Collins’ prose, whether from her previous novel, Echolocation (Engine Books, 2012), or her collection of short stories, I Am Holding Your Hand  (PANK Books, 2013), or from her numerous online and print publications, will know that she possesses her own inimitable style. Keenly focused on the senses and the natural world, Collins’ prose has a natural, unfussy, yet poetic flow. She is that rare writer, gifted both at the sentence level and the larger story level. And this is where the book becomes an extraordinary achievement, because the beautiful prose enhances the story, rather than takes away from it. And the story, so unique and compelling, enhances the prose.

On the very first page, we get:

“The light smearing through the windows is a dull toothache of yellow, I rub a hand over my eyes to clear them.”

A signature of Collins writing is the music of her prose. Often she uses repetition (beginning three or more sentences with the same words) in a hypnotic, musical way in the most emotional passages:

“I would keep reading and learn about this other way of seeing. I would become the animal. I would become the woods.”

Laney is a very clearly wrought character. Self-aware, thoughtful, sensitive, sometimes wise beyond her years. I say sometimes, because Collins is careful to give us a true human being, a true teenager, with faults and vulnerabilities we can relate to. Certainly and importantly, she is a character that teenagers, the target readers for this young adult novel, will be able to relate to. She and her brother, West, have been shuttled from place to place by their widowed mother, Alice, and have never had a chance to make solid friendships. They both present as outsiders. But while Laney takes her pain inward, West is befriended by another troubled boy, and his fate is seemingly sealed. And here, there are parallels to the Columbine shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

Another finely drawn character is Laney’s grandmother, Meme, who lives by her own code, resisting technology, resisting comforts such as central heat, a shower, even a telephone. She is a curious, compelling character with pains and secrets of her own. At first she seems to treat Laney cooly, laying down her ground rules, a sort of no-nonsense type. The manner in which Collins unfolds the relationship between she and Laney shows great control and a great sense of storytelling. The reader knows there’s a great deal under the surface, knows Meme must be driven and motivated by something we’re not immediately privy to.

One could read this book just for it’s breathtaking descriptions of nature. The setting itself is such a powerful aspect of this novel: the bluff, the moonscapes, snow and freezing rain, a frozen, then thawing, lake, the Northern Lights. Nature asserts itself over and over again, and Laney’s eyes are searching and perceptive and keen. So many times in reading, I simply paused and lingered. Powerful descriptions echo powerful emotions in Collins’ writing:

“The moon, cottoned over by clouds, shone like a thumprint that night when all those people were in the school auditorium, mourning the dead, praying for retribution…If I could, I would push the moon away from myself forever. I do not deserve the moon.”

“I felt the walls pushing up against me, like I was inside someone’s sooty lungs.”

In a deft couple of sentences, here, Collins plays with image to great and darkly humorous effect:

“She spewed small talk as we walked down the path, saying it would be the best place for me and how I would have stability…I slipped a bit and caught myself on a branch limb.”

Laney encounters many challenges in her new life in the Adirondacks. The visions come unbidden and with increasing frequency. Through them, she gradually gains more understanding of the lives of her parents and of her brother, West. She even gets a glimpse of her friend, Marshall’s life, a boy she’s attracted to. She also reads from her brother’s journal, The Book of West, and gets insight into his life and mind leading up to the attack on the school bus.

Meme teaches Laney how to survive. How to track animals. How to read a compass and her surroundings to always find her way back home.

Laney comes to love her new home and to feel she has a place there, but just as she begins to feel as though she belongs, however, the secrets from her family’s past and of her own past, threaten to rip it all away from her. Through her visions, she learns the secret of her father’s demise. She comes to understand the choices her mother made as well. Armed with the gift of her visions, Laney must decide how to go forward and break the cycle of emotional harm, to reverse patterns and create a new path.

A beautifully written, compassionate, and important novel, Myfanwy Collins’ The Book of Laney is a must read. I can’t recommend it highly enough for both young adult and adult readers. The book may be ordered through its publisher, Lacewing Books (an imprint of EngineBooks) or from Amazon .