First Book of 2014: You Are One Of Them by Elliott Holt

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Kicking off my second Cannonball with a Not So Big Book. Is that cheating? This is one of many books that has been talked about over on Flavorwire and ended up on my to read list because of it. It tells the story of two friends in 1980s America. Sarah Zuckerman and Jenny Jones. Guess which one is a shy self doubting wallflower and which one is the perky All American popular girl. In the grip of the Cold War propaganda, they both write to Russian president Andropov. He responds, but only to All American Jenny, who is soon some kind of Child Ambassador for Peace & Harmony, while Sarah glowers from the sidelines. But then, before relations can be patched up, Jenny and her parents are killed in a plane crash. Or ARE they?

The main narrative drive of this book centres around Sarah, now 22 years old and still living in Jenny’s shadow thanks to her agoraphobic mother starting a foundation in Jenny’s name after her death. She receives a letter from someone connected to the foundation, who knew Jenny when she was the all smiling child of peace and the letter seems to hint that maybe the plane crash was staged and  Jenny is still very much alive.

Sarah is intrigued enough to relocate to Moscow and see if she can uncover anything else about whether Jenny lives on or whether the crash really did kill her. Moscow is full of half truths and shadows, fakes and cover ups, making it difficult for Sarah to really find out anything concrete. It doesn’t help that she is hardly the most stable or reliable of narrators either. As the book wears on, Sarah’s grasp on her own sanity seems to become ever more tenuous. The Moscow she describes feels so authentic, it’s no surprise to find that Holt lived and worked there. The language, the customs, the craziness, all feels very real. Which helps us believe Sarah’s situation, since it’s so completely unreal.

Weirdly, this has drawn comparisons to Nancy Drew, but I don’t see that at all. It’s not a mystery or a detective novel and it certainly doesn’t take all the loose ends, tie them up in a nice big shiny bow and pat the reader on the head in the final pages. It’s a fucked up twentysomething girl trying to both exorcise and make sense of her past. Whether or not she achieves that is up for you to decide. It’s a great book, it whips along at a heck of a pace and if you find yourself just unable to wait for The Americans to come back on TV, this should fill the void very nicely.

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