‘Why do you wear costumes everywhere, Jackie O?’ he said when he’d finished.
Esther didn’t want to tell Jonah the truth. That the costumes were, in part, because of him. After he left elementary school, left her to the cruelty of their classmates, she couldn’t bear it anymore. Couldn’t bear the name-calling, and the unkind laughter, and the way eyes left hot tracks on her body as they moved across her skin. People were going to tease her no matter how she dressed, so one morning, not long after Jonah disappeared, Esther decided to dress as someone else entirely: a witch.
Kids were still mean, but somehow, when she was in costume, it hurt less. The words were meant for whatever character she was outfitted as: not Esther herself; eyes and words slid over her, a weapon glancing off armour.
And then later, when the curse had befallen her brother, and mother and father, Esther kept wearing the costumes as a way to hide form fear. Death was looking for Esther Solar; as long as she kept wearing the costumes, she hoped he’d always have trouble finding her.
(A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares by Krystal Sutherland. P103.)
Jonah Smallwood broke Esther’s heart back in Middle School. When they meet again, he pickpockets her of her savings, her Grandmother’s bracelet and her bus fare. Even so, they fall in love.
You could say Esther’s family is dysfunctional. There’s Mum, who throws money at the slots. Dad, who hasn’t left the basement since his first stroke. Esther’s brother Eugene is being consumed by the darkness inside him, which girls at school find totally irresistible.
Esther believes her family cursed. Every member of her family develops a phobia, which ultimately results in their death. So Esther’s Grandfather says, and he should know. He met the Death’s apprentice during the Vietnam war, and the curse began. Now Reg is dying of Alzheimer’s, haunted by the ghosts of the murder cases he didn’t solve.
Esther feels powerless to help her family. She would rather wear costumes to school than let people learn who she really is. It is easier to hide behind a fictional identity than get close to someone else. Then Jonah Smallwood steals Esther’s list of greatest phobias, and their adventure together begins. Together, they work backwards through the list, confronting everything Esther is afraid of, until she is forced to confront her greatest fear of all.
There are many reasons to rave about this book. It’s one of the special ones. Compelling story, realistic relationships and the best portrayal of mental health I have come across. A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares has it all.
I wanted to review the book based on its quirky setting, and characters. I didn’t know much about the story, but I fell in love with the world in one chapter. Esther lives her live in homemade costumes. She lives in a house which could be described as Addams Family Lite – something gothic, something sprawling, a house riddled with lucky talismans and ‘goblin roosters’ and basements big enough to live in. It sounded like a house of dark corners and surprises, and I wasn’t disappointed. It made a great setting for the theme of confronting fears.
Every character is so individual. There’s Hephzibah Hadid – Heph is ignored by so many people, Esther spent part of her life believing Heph was an imaginary friend. There is Grandpa, who has seen Death, and ‘death’s apprentice’ himself, a pockmarked man named Jack Horrowitz, whose ability to survive injuries during the Vietnam War not only scares his comrades, it outright spooks them.
When I read the opening chapter, I couldn’t understand why Esther would fall in love with somebody who robbed her at a bus stop. Jonah was going to have to be a deep and rounded character for me to believe that one. Guess what? Believe it I did. I wish everybody had a Jonah in their lives, a person who sees and accepts your fears and failings. Jonah’s not only believable, he’s staying in my mind. My favourite scene is when Jonah and Esther confront the fear of abandoned buildings. I can’t spoil it, but the depth of its imagery makes it a beautiful moment.
I’m not a fan of ‘issue books’. How can I explain this? It is important to highlight different illnesses and orientations, experiences and atrocities. I believe that. However, highlighting them for the sake of saying ‘they exist’, in a book, doesn’t make a rounded character. The character has to be a believable person, with thoughts and hopes and dreams which relate to things other than their issue. Does that make sense? Anyhow. This is a stunning portrayal of metal health issues. It doesn’t examine an issue, it shows life with an issue from myriad angles. Esther is a rounded character, with thoughts and aspirations aside form her anxiety, and her growing relationship with Jonah is divine.
This book is precious. It dares to show mental health as an issue, as worthy of our attention as the abuse Jonah suffers at the hands of his Dad. It dares to point out that other people’s tolerance of people with mental health problems is low. That most people reach a point where they expect the ill person to ‘just pull themselves together’. That this attitude can do as much damage as telling a person with a physical health problem to ‘just go away and see if it gets better’. Kyrstal Sutherland’s voice is loud and proud. Sensitive and totally realistic.
I can’t wait to read Sutherland’s debut, Our Chemical Hearts. In the meantime, I urge you to fall in love with Esther and Jonah. You may even confront your worst fears alongside them.
Huge thanks to ReadersFirst for sending a copy to review. This does not affect the honesty of my review.