Paper Covers Rock (by Jenny Hubbard)

18 12 2012

Jenny Hubbard’s debut novel Paper Covers Rock was a 2011 Williapapercoversrockm C. Morris finalist and it’s not hard to see why. Its poetic language definitely sets it apart from a lot of other YA books, and on Hubbard’s website it’s now also even marketed as “a literary novel for teens (and adults)”. This resulted in the book also garnering 4 starred reviews (Horn, SLJ, PW, Booklist). Needless to say, it is definitely a critics’ favorite and a “writers’” book. It may not be “one of the best young adult books I’ve read in years” as blurbed by Pat Conroy on the cover, but it’s a damn good book nevertheless!

The book deals with Alex Stromm and his feelings of guilt after failing to save one of his friends from drowning. After the event, the three boys present at the scene (Alex, Glenn and Clay) start lying about what really happened, all dealing with the event in their own way. For Clay, that involves taking the blame and being expelled – a much better option that coming clean about his sexuality. For golden boy Glenn that entails trying to set up their fresh out of Princeton English teacher, Miss Dovecott. For Alex, however, this means taking refuge in his writing. The book then is an – unreliable – account of Alex dealing with the aftermath of Thomas’ death. Miss Dovecott seems to recognize a poet’s soul in Alex and encourages him in his writing. As such the book is interspersed with literary references and poetic examples: from references to Moby Dick (every chapter’s title is a direct quote from Moby Dick), Thoreau and Hemingway; to Alex’s own poems and literary essays which he includes in this book he’s writing.

The beauty of this slender book lies as much in its language as in what is not being said. We never get any definitive answers concerning Miss Dovecott’s motivations for being at the school, or why she’s really interested in Alex. We also don’t really get a firm answer as to the why of Thomas’s death. Hubbard skillfully weaves a web of intrigue and half-lies and unreliable truths. In the end, you’re none the wiser about Alex and his real reasons for writing the book he’s writing. The key here is definitely realizing that not only is Alex an unreliable narrator, but there are different Alexes in this book: the character, the narrator, the persona in his poems and essay…  And towards the end, “Alex” is still very much an enigma, just like Miss Dovecott is. If you can’t deal with so many open questions, you will not like this book very much. Also, the fact that it is set in the 1980s (and in an all-boys boarding school!) may be alienating  for a lot of contemporary teens (there’s no link to their familiar high school world at first sight). However, I’m convinced that an open-minded teen or adult reader will enjoy this book as much as the cat did.

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