That’s fine. It’s OK, Sara Barnard. I didn’t need those tears on the inside of my body. Oh wow. Cool. Your novels always sneak up on me, both in the sense that I often don’t hear about them until they’re just being published, and also in the sense that the first half or so of the story often undersells itself until it builds to a final, incredible crescendo. Where the Light Goes continues this trend in a big way. I didn’t think I would give this book five stars—unlike Fierce Fragile Hearts, which I identified with very closely, Where the Light Goes is about losing a sister to suicide—fortunately, I haven’t endured any loss like that. I was expecting to find this book beautiful from a distance. But no, you just had to tiptoe around all my emotional defences and tap me on the shoulder, then when I turned around to look you tapped me on the other shoulder, and finally you whispered, “Got you,” before delivering that exquisitely heartbreaking final sequence.
Emmy Beckwith is sixteen years old. Her older sister, Beth, is known to the rest of the world as Lizzie Beck, one quarter of a surprisingly successful girl pop group, The Jinks. After Beth dies by suicide, Emmy of course is left with unanswered questions, grief, and the heavy hypocrisy of media and people in Beth’s life who knew her more as Lizzie. The book counts the number of days since Beth’s death. Emmy and her immediate family grapple with what it means to lose a daughter but also to lose the person who provided the family’s connection to fame and fortune.
I wasn’t prepared for the staccato style of writing Barnard employs here—but I kind of loved it? And I say this as someone who is generally rather harsh when writers deviate from the conventional chapter-and-paragraph form of the modern novel; the further I get out of my heady days of university literature, the more I just crave that conventional storytelling. However, in this case, I think the choice works very well in capturing Emmy’s volatile emotions and memories. The same goes for interspersing news report excerpts, transcripts from interviews, WhatsApp conversations, etc. Where the Light Goes feels like an attempt at adapting and pushing the novel form in a direction that might appeal more and more to the youngest generation of young adult readers. In the past I have been skeptical of authors including these kinds of devices because they can feel gimmicky. Here, however, it just works.
The style also feels very appropriate given the chunking that often accompanies grief. I have the privilege of never having lost anyone as close to me as Emmy was to her sister. So I took my time sitting with what Emmy felt and how she acted. Writing grief, portraying it deeply without shading into melodrama, is a tall order. Barnard really captures how emotions can turn on a dime. How you can be rude to friends and family, do things you might regret, before turning around and needing someone a minute later. Add on top of this the hormones and stress of being a sixteen-year-old girl, of having a famous sister … well, it’s a lot.
I have often been in the role of Grey and Emmy’s other friends. Between reading this book and writing this review, my ride-or-die’s father died. She’s far away from me, so there isn’t much I can do. I sent her a short text, much like Grey does to Emmy, knowing that she didn’t need one more person blowing up her phone right now. Sometimes the hardest thing to do as a friend is to wait.
Lurking beneath these character studies in grief is the even more insidious theme of how celebrity twists relationships. Obviously we see this in how media outlets capitalize on Beth’s death for content in the same way they used her while she was alive. However, the more fascinating example to me is between Emmy and her dad. As The Jinks’ manager, Emmy’s dad must process Beth’s death in two ways. He has lost his daughter, yes. But with the fate of the band uncertain, he is also facing losing his job. The way that this creates some intra-family strife is very fascinating. I love how Barnard manages to portray all three of the Beckwiths with such grace and roundness. None of them are bad people. Emmy’s mum is upset with Malcolm at times, but she also understands why he acts the way he does. Vice versa for Emmy talking with her mum, or with her dad. Again, it’s the way that Barnard navigates through this turmoil without tipping over into melodrama that truly impresses me.
And that ending. Yeah, that’s how this book needed to end. I cried. The transcript especially, the way that Barnard privileges us with the glimpse forward so we can see how Emmy continues to deal with this event … it’s great.
Where the Light Goes deals with extremely heavy themes around suicide, drug use, and fame. It is an intense book. But it is also a Sara Barnard book—I don’t think she has a gear other than “intense,” nor do I want one from her. If Courtney Summers is the Queen of YA Devastation, Sara Barnard is the Duchess of YA Anguish. She tells stories that always land on the sadder side of real in a way that remind us that sadness isn’t something we can run from, only through.