Review of Unboxed by Non Pratt
by Non Pratt
I want to teach high school because I want to stay young forever. Seriously. There is nothing like spending your day around teenagers, feeling their energy and their enthusiasm, being exposed to their perspectives in the world. At the moment my teaching career has shifted sideways, and I’m working with adults who need their high school diplomas (and that has its own rewards). Even then, I can still stay young by reading YA.
I started writing reviews on Goodreads when I was 18, when I could still comfortably call myself a young adult. Now, at 27, that stage of my life is, like my hairline, receding. Whereas 18-year-old Kara could review Unboxed and other YA from a YA reader’s perspective, I’m having to come to terms with the fact that I can only review it from an adult-who-is-reading YA perspective. Don’t get me wrong: I think these labels are largely marketing, that YA novels can be high quality literature, and that adults should read YA and can find it relevant. I just want to highlight that what I get from a YA novel isn’t necessarily what teenage readers might get from the same story, and that is an important distinction.
Still, in Unboxed Non Pratt deals with a subject that all adults will recognize. Sometimes I think the hardest thing about getting older is not the physical process of aging but the inevitability of leaving people, or rather one’s relationships with people, behind. Regardless of the details, we can all relate to Alix and her mixed feelings about reuniting with Ben, Zara, and Dean to unearth a time capsule five years on from its burial, with their now-deceased friend Millie an omnipresent ghost over the night’s proceedings.
There’s few things better than a writer who knows novellas. Unboxed is a surgical strike of storytelling. Like, I’m disappointed it’s not a full novel simply because I want me more Pratt—but I can see the wisdom of this particular length. This is a lean, mean, storytelling machine where every scene pays off, every conversation reveals more about these characters. And it is all towards this theme of what friendship actually means and whether it is OK for friends to drift apart as they change. I also think this is a book that will really appeal to more reluctant readers, both in terms of subject matter and length, and in my opinion any book that is a gateway drug to reading is a good thing.
One thing I find very fascinating is Pratt’s decision to tell the story entirely from Alix’s perspective. Why no split POV? Why Alix in particular? (Pratt has since answered this question on Twitter! Yay interwebs.)
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to talk about Alix being gay, since we learn it at the beginning of the book. I love the way Pratt weaves Alix’s sexuality, and her complex feelings about hiding her discovery of it from her friends five years ago, throughout the other developments in this book. Alix isn’t a gay character for the sake of having a gay character in some kind of tokenist move; neither, however, is her sexuality her sole defining trait. Rather, it’s a part of Alix’s wider identity, and the conflict she feels as the night goes on is an interesting foil to her otherwise forthright, take-charge attitude. Pratt clearly delineates a special connection from Millie to Alix to the rest of the group: they point out that Millie knew the others would come if Alix asked on her behalf. And throughout the evening, despite her anxiety about coming out to her friends, Alix is a driving force in this activity.
Millie’s role in the book is also fascinating just because she’s, you know, dead. She is a posthumous character in the most literal sense; aside from that last letter, everything we learn about her comes from how the others speak about her. As is often the case, they are reluctant to speak ill of the dead. To Alix, Ben, Zara, and Dean—at least on this night of nights—Millie is mythologized, larger than life, this wise and sympathetic creature who knew them better than they knew themselves. In some ways, this is true: Millie is quite literally the force that gets them together; she plays quite a big role in the time capsule. But it’s also a comment on how we project our hopes and fears on other people, and how we sometimes need other people to validate our choices.
Because I’m a wizened, old literary snob, I saw a lot of the plot points coming and so wasn’t moved by the twists per se—but I still teared up at the end, there. If you’ve read it, you know the part I’m talking about: page 128, after Alix has read her letter, that scene of unimpeachable and intense connection…. And that’s, to borrow a John Crichton turn of phrase, what I’m talking about. When you know it’s coming, you know exactly what’s going to happen, but the author still manages to sneak up and sucker punch you right in the feels—that is wonderful.
Pratt doesn’t just tell stories. They make characters come alive, and they do it with such precision and timing. In less than 150 pages we meet four dynamic individuals with flaws and doubts and questionable choices of boyfriends. We only get to join them for a night, but what a night. Unboxed is about facing the past to confront the future, and it’s a story of uncertainty and friendship and bonding that adolescents and adults alike are going to recognize. It’s edifying without being patronizing; it’s sharp and clear but does not cut.
And it offers no false promises.
There is a tidiness to a lot of YA stories about friendship, particularly the kind that make it to the big screen, that makes me uneasy. There is a promise, explicit or implicit, that everything works out in the end. You spend your whole story worrying about going off to different colleges but, hey, it all works out for the best. We’re so afraid of loose ends in our narratives. But it’s those loose ends that make them real. Unboxed ends on what I would term a positive and uplifting note—but Pratt offers no reassurance, no promise that this Freaksome Four will remain reunited or intact. She can’t, because they can’t, because life is unpredictable. Life gives you stomach cancer and abusive parents and crap boyfriends and divorced parents who move away and you just have to deal.
But if you’re lucky, you don’t have to deal with it alone.
I like it. Maybe not as much as Remix or Trouble, but they were novels, and I’m really biased in favour of novels. Unboxed is about as good as novellas get for me, though, and it really is just delightful to meet more of Pratt’s characters and hear their uncompromising, empathetic words again.