Review: Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley

Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley book cover

A poignant and haunting story of love, loss grief and yearning.

Genre: Contemporary YA

Years ago, Rachel had a crush on her best friend, Henry, but didn’t know how to tell him face-to-face. So she wrote him a letter and tucked it between the pages of Henry’s favourite book. But the night she left the letter, Henry went on a date with Amy and decided it was love. Henry never mentioned the letter, and Rachel and her family moved from Melbourne to a small seaside town soon after.

Now, it’s the summer after year twelve and Rachel is back in Melbourne, where her aunty has got her a job at the secondhand bookshop run by Henry’s family. Rachel is less than thrilled to be working with Henry. She’s over her crush but doesn’t know how to tell him or her old friends that her younger brother died a year ago. Or that, after his death, she went from being the top science student at her school to failing year twelve. Or that she’s only back in the city because she can’t bear to be near the water that took him.

Henry, on the other hand, is pleased to have Rachel home and hopes he might finally get some answers about why she left without saying goodbye, what happened to their seemingly-indestructible friendship and why she’s turned so cold towards him.

But their friendship isn’t the only thing that’s changed. In fact, it seems that everything Rachel and Henry once held familiar is falling apart: Henry’s parents have split and are thinking of selling the bookshop; their friends’ band is playing its final few gigs; Henry and Amy might have broken up for good; and even the boy who’s been writing to Henry’s younger sister, George, via the Letter Library in the bookshop has stopped replying to her notes.

Both Henry and Rachel would give anything to return to the time before everything fell apart, but as the summer wears on it becomes clear that nothing lasts forever and holding onto what’s lost is holding them back.

Cath Crowley’s Words in Deep Blue (Pan Macmillan Australia, Aug. 2016) is a poignant and haunting story of love, loss grief and yearning that explores how by fixating on what’s lost we risk losing sight of what might still be gained.

I’ve been meaning to read Crowley’s work for ages, in particular Graffiti Moon (2010, Pan Macmillan Australia), which earned a list of Awards and nominations as long as my arm. So when I was offered the opportunity to review Words in Deep Blue I took it as a sign to stop dithering and finally see why so many readers rave about Crowley’s novels.

However, keen as I was, the blurb didn’t hook me. It’s a rare YA love story that doesn’t make me want to vomit, and the idea of the Letter Library (a collection of not-for-sale books Henry’s dad keeps at the back of the bookshop in which people are encouraged to leave notes and letters) seemed like a way-too-convenient vehicle for the romance I suspected would unfold. Also, a story about a bunch of teenage bookworms who spend all their time hanging out in a secondhand bookstore seemed like pandering.

Needless to say, my scepticism didn’t make it past the epigraph. Do sugary, predictable YA love stories begin with quotes from Kafka, David Foster Wallace and T. S. Eliot:

‘Every love story is a ghost story’?

Probs not. The thing that struck me most about Words in Deep Blue was its complexity and depth of emotion. It is a love story, of sorts. But it’s also a story about grief. And risk. And second chances. And knowing when to let go. And understanding that letting go isn’t the same as giving up.

Of late, a lot of contemporary YA narratives have been criticised for characters that fall in insta-love (here’s looking at you, When We Collided), to the point that we’ve coined the term ‘insta-love’. Ugh. Words in Deep Blue rejects these easy connections. The story’s key relationships are formed over years and undergo changes as the characters mature and learn more about themselves and each other.

It’s a story that depicts love as something that evolves over time, involves risk and effort and vulnerability and, even then, may not work out no matter how much you want it to. It’s refreshing to see a contemporary YA narrative champion this idea that love isn’t necessarily forever. Indeed, the relationship I felt most invested in, is the one that has no future. I won’t say any more, because spoilers. But, uh Gud. *Blinks rapidly and fans face* I’m not crying. It’s hay fever. *Gives up pretence and sobs openly* This book will break your heart a thousand times over.

Crowley also looks at the ways we cope with loss. In particular, she explores that space where our desire to hold onto something begins to overwhelm the thing itself, souring its memory and blinding us to new opportunities. Each of her characters clings to something that’s holding them back: a relationship that’s run its course, a failed dream, grief over the death of a loved one, a grudge, a misconception, a yearning for things to be other than what they are. As the narrative unfolds, and the characters begin to ease their grip on the things that anchor them to their past, Crowley shows that letting go, scary and difficult as it may be, is the first step in moving on.

It’s a deeply bittersweet read that delivers hope and melancholy in equal measure. The narrative mostly alternates between Rachel and Henry, with occasional excerpts from the Letter Library. And, ye gods, it’s so beautifully written. Tight and sharp and less ‘showy’ than a lot of contemporary YA. BUT Crowley uses a lot of intertextuality. As in, A LOT, a lot. It’s not necessarily a criticism, but it’s a risky strategy. Some readers who are unfamiliar with all the texts cited will doubtless be thrilled to discover a bunch of authors and titles to add to their future reading list, but others may feel excluded and not ‘well read’ enough to fully engage with the story. Which would be a real shame.

The characters, being bookworms, frequently quote, reference and reflect on their favourite books and authors, and their tastes are broad, spanning everything from Jules Verne to Kirsty Eagar and then some. (Personally, I loved the intertextuality, but I did find it just a *tad* unrealistic that the teenage characters were more widely read than the average English postgrad. I get that they hang around a bookshop, but they simply haven’t had that much time.)

Crowley’s prose also pays homage to the texts that influence Words in Deep Blue. For example, in addition to the quote in the epigraph, there are countless references to T S Eliot’s poetry. ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is Henry’s favourite poem, and there’s the delicious irony of Rachel leaving him a letter pressed between the pages of that particular poem because she lacks the courage to tell him how she feels face-to-face. Their friends’ band is called The Hollows, and characters wander half-deserted streets with their souls stretched tight across the skies as they grapple with overwhelming questions, contemplate risk and struggle to say just what they mean. For me, the Letter Library, with all its messages sent but not necessarily received, reminded me of The Waste Land and the fragmented voices that speak through the poem. Indeed, the book’s contemplation of memory, yearning, risk and regret reminded me of the recurring themes in Eliot’s work, and, of course, such a heavy use of intertextuality is so very Eliot.

That said, there’s no required reading for Words in Deep Blue. If I weren’t a total Eliot nut, it wouldn’t matter. I know this because Crowley also makes frequent reference to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which I haven’t read. I’m sure some of her more subtle nods towards Mitchell’s book went over my head, and maybe I would have appreciated the story on another level if I had read Mitchell, but I didn’t feel I was missing something vital. (In this way, Words in Deep Blue reminded me of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, in that it’s not essential to pick up every reference to enjoy the story, it’s just more fun when you do.) Hence, my point above about some readers perceiving the text as exclusive.

It’s been a few weeks now since I read Words in Deep Blue, and I still find myself thinking about it at random moments. Indeed, I’ve been hesitant to review it because I haven’t been sure how to do it justice, and I still don’t think I have. It’s one of those rare and special books that not only blew past all my expectations but also tapped into some pretty hefty emotions. There were a number of times while I was reading when I had to pause for a moment and just sit with what the story was making me feel. It doesn’t hit the obvious emotions, but it destroys you.

I loved the characters. I loved each of their stories and the way they overlapped. And I loved how much and how deeply Words in Deep Blue made me feel. I’m so utterly haunted by this book, and I realise that I dropped all pretence of critical analysis two paragraphs ago, so I’ll finish up. But before I do, I just want to say that if you’re looking for a really stellar contemporary YA read, Words in Deep Blue would be an excellent place to start.

See Words in Deep Blue on Goodreads and purchase through Booktopia.

Thank you to Pan Macmillan Australia for providing a copy of Words in Deep Blue in exchange for an honest review.

Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up three critical issues and twenty-four advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!

—Margot XO 


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