Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Secret History of Us by Jessi Kirby

Olivia (Liv) Jordan struggles to awaken after being kept sedated for eight days. Her parents reveal that she's been in a car accident, that her car was hit by another driver and sent plunging over the Carson Bridge into the Bay. She has been medicated the past eight days so she could heal. She learns she has four broken ribs and has had a breathing tube so that her lungs could heal. Olivia tries to remember what happened but isn't able to bring forth any memories.

After her parents leave, Liv manages to get out of bed and reads some of the cards accompanying the many bouquets of flowers she's received. One if from Dana Whitmore of KBSY Action News that mentions having spoken with Matt and Walker and expressing interest in interviewing the three of them together. Olivia has no idea who Matt or Walker are.

The next morning Olivia is visited by her friend Paige whom she remembers as being much younger looking. She also meets Matt who she learns is her boyfriend. Matt whose arm is in a sling, was also involved in the accident. He apologizes for not being able to get her out of the car and tells her he loves her. But Liv can only tell Matt and Paige that she doesn't know him.

After telling her mom about not knowing Matt, Dr. Tate is called. He does extensive tests and based on the questions asked, he tells Liv and her parents that she "is experiencing post-traumatic retrograde amnesia", which could be due to the lack of oxygen her brain experienced or the blow to the head when she was pulled into the boat. Liv doesn't remember anything after the summer before her freshman year. Memories about school, volleyball, birthdays, dances, summers spent working at the marina and dating Matt are gone. Dr. Tate tells them this could be permanent or some or all of her memories may return over time. He recommends Liv be discharged so she can return to her routine and her life.

But returning to her routine proves difficult for Liv. At home she makes a series of "discoveries" about her life; she was intimate with Matt, her room looks nothing like she remembers because it was redecorated two years earlier, she has worked the past three summers with her brother Sam at the Fuel Depot taking food orders and delivering food to boats. Dinner reveals that Liv became vegetarian.

Liv encounters reluctance from both Sam and her parents when she questions them about who pulled her from the submerged car. They are vague about Walker James, telling her only that he lives on one of the old boats at the marina and that he saw her car go off the bridge, took a fishing boat to help and pulled her out of the car. It was Walker who did CPR. When Liv expresses the desire to meet and thank him, her father deflects her, telling Liv she needs to work on recovering. She learns a video of her rescue exists and was shown on the news. Upset that her parents withheld this information, Liv goes to her bedroom. There she immediately searches the video, watching it multiple times, hoping to feel something. What she does feel is the desire to at least thank Walker James and maybe to get to know this mysterious person.

The next day, while left alone at home, Liv begins by looking through family albums. Sure enough she  has no memories of the beginning of grade nine. She finds pictures of her friends Paige and Jules, and then Jules seems to vanish from her life and Matt appears. Walker James is also in her freshman year but then never appears again. Liv is determined to recapture her memories and believes that stepping back into her life will accomplish that. But as Liv discovers, no matter how hard we try, we can never go back, only forward.


Jessi Kirby has written another appealing novel, this time focusing on a girl attempting to recover her the life she can't remember. After her car accident, Olivia can't remember anything after the start of grade nine. She doesn't even recognize herself in the mirror. "The girl in the mirror blinks when I blink. She brings her hand to her face when I do. She even shakes her head at the same time I do. But I don't know this girl in the mirror. I don't know her at all." 

The missing four years of her life are devastating to Olivia. "I'm missing the pieces that make up the picture in the middle. The pieces of who I am now. Today I learned that I'm eighteen years old, but the last birthday I can remember celebrating is my fourteenth."

When she returns home, Olivia tries to behave like she remembers her past, like she normally would but nothing feels normal to her. Her first dinner is especially difficult because her not remembering she is vegetarian unsettles everyone. "I watch everyone carefully, trying to make sure I don't do anything I usually wouldn't do, or eat anything I no longer eat. I'm relieved when no one corrects the generous scoop of guacamole I put over the veggie crumbles to make them edible."

At first Olivia tries desperately to remember her past and to slip into her normal routine. The first morning at home when she admits she hasn't remembered anything, Olivia tells her mother, " 'Nothing that I don't already remember from before,' I answer, feeling the failure in my response." Olivia's search through family albums leads her to understand just how much she's lost. "But as I sit here looking over years of my life that I don't remember, it starts to hit me what I've really lost. A photo takes a fraction of a second to snap...What about all the unrecorded moments? All the thoughts and feelings...Things I dreamed of, and secrets I kept. These are the things that make up who we are, and these are the things I'm worried I won't get back." Olivia decides "I'll step right back into my life, like it was before. And when I don't know what it was like, I'll find out." 

To do that she enlists the help of her best friend Paige who fills her in, especially on her relationship with Matt Turner. Although Paige paints them as the perfect couple, Olivia feels nothing. "Being told the story of something is not the same as experiencing it, no matter how touching or detailed it is. And now all I can think is that our perfect love story might already be over if I can't ever remember what happened for myself." But as Olivia seeks out information about her past, she begins to feel increasingly troubled. "I've quickly become used to not knowing things for myself, and to taking everyone else's word for it, but this bothers me. It doesn't feel right, and I want to figure out why."

Olivia soon realizes that her parents and her friends are not telling her the whole truth about her life, that certain things are being left out. This makes her angry and confused. She discovers that Sam, Paige and her parents have left things out, seemingly to protect her.

As Olivia's attempt to restart her relationship with Matt fails, she begins to realize that maybe even her friends didn't know the real her, that she's kept secrets from them. Olivia explains her struggle to her parents who like everyone else want her to be normal. "Everyone wants me to just got back to normal, and I'm trying, I really am, but I don't even know what that is...And people keep trying to tell me what to do, and I know they're trying to help, but what if they don't even know who I was?...What if I was the only one who really knew who I was before? Where does that leave me now that it's all gone?"

Olivia's mother and father both have advice for her which she takes to heart. Her mother tells her, "You're not empty. The things that make up who you are? They're still there. They didn't go away just because you can't remember them. They're in you. So you just need to trust your gut. Really listen for what you think and feel. That's you." Olivia's father encourages her to "go with what seems right to you, not what you think you should be doing because it's what you've been told. You're allowed to change..."  This advice is freeing to Olivia because it feels "like they just somehow gave me permission to be more okay with who I am right now."

This allows Olivia to follow her father's advice of focusing not on the past but on the now. Olivia's journey to recover her life is redirected to begin living her life in the present. Olivia symbolically begins this new journey when she erases all the writings from the past two years off her chalkboard wall in her room. But Olivia really begins it when she uncovers some of the mystery of her past life; that she was involved with Walker James, that they had a relationship and that her relationship with Matt was ending. The proof for her is in her award winning photo essay, titled The Secret History of Us which was submitted by Walker, because she missed the deadline due to her accident, about her working with Walker on restoring his old boat. The photos, taken by Olivia capture the feelings she had with Walker and feel real to her. Because of that, Olivia decides that this is the relationship that has meaning for her now.

The amnesia trope has been done quite a lot in teen fiction and usually leads to the main character uncovering some secret about themselves that none of the other characters know. Readers will therefore, quickly suspect that Olivia has some sort of secret relationship with Walker, the mysterious, brooding guy who saved her, but this doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the novel.

The Secret History of Us is unique in young adult fiction in that it is filled with many positive characters; Olivia's father is a policeman and her parents are supportive and caring, older brother Sam is humorous and sweet, and Paige is a faithful friend who really tries to help Olivia.

Kirby is a master at describing rather than telling. Kirby opens The Secret History of Us by describing the sensations Olivia is experiencing rather than telling us where she is, and it is this entire descriptive chapter that leads the reader to understand she is both in a hospital and struggling to regain consciousness.

It's a voice that's familiar. Warm in a way that makes me want to keep hearing it. Comforting, but I can't place it. I search. Through the water or the fog -- I can't tell which because it's everywhere, all around me.
But I know this voice. I know her.
I grasp at the word, reach for something to pair it with. A name...a face...something, anything, but I come up empty, except for that familiar feeling."

The Secret History of Us is filled with imagery that reflects the sense of loss that Olivia feels and suggests second chances; the  medal of St. Anthony, the patron saint of finding things that are lost,  given to Olivia by Jules and "found" by Walker represents Olivia's struggle to recover her lost past , the slightly broken sand dollar that she finds on the beach - "this thing that's been tossed by the ocean, and broken enough to lose part of itself, but that's still intact, and strong.", the boat whose name is Second Chance which belongs to Walker and suggests their blossoming relationship - interrupted by Olivia's accident will get a second chance.

Fans of contemporary fiction will enjoy The Secret History of Us which is a light read.  As usual Kirby has another gem to her credit. One bone to pick: HarperCollins should take greater care with proofing as there is a typo in the second sentence of the very first chapter.

Book Details:

The Secret History of Us by Jessi Kirby
New York: HarperCollins Publishers    2017
276 pp.

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