Book Review: Lovely, Dark and Deep by Amy McNamara

Amy McNamara’s Lovely, Dark and Deep is in serious contention for being the best book I’ve read this year. Yes, already. It’s amazing, and I would highly strongly seriously overwhelmingly recommend it to you if you haven’t read it, with one caveat: this is a seriously dark and intense book about grief, mental illness, and coping with loss. It was really hard for me to read, and for those who are feeling raw, it might be a good book to wait on. Yes, it is that intense. Seriously. Read with caution.

At 18, Wren is taking refuge with her father, putting off school, life, art, and everything else in her world while she tries to deal with the aftermath of a horrific car accident that killed her boyfriend while she was seated next to him. All she wants to do is sink into the depths of winter and carve out some space to be herself and figure out who she is going to be, but everyone around her seems to have different ideas, pushing her to get a job, start doing art again, make friends, get involved, see a psychiatrist, do something.

Instead, she runs. And runs, and runs, and runs, pounding through the snow while she sorts out her thoughts. But over time, she’s slowly forced to interact, through a series of manipulative moves on the part of both her parents; she meets a boy, she befriends a fellow studying at her father’s studio, she starts working at the local library. But still, all Wren really wants to do is hide, and she’s easily overwhelmed by everything around her.

The suffocating nature of living in a small town, where everyone knows your business and stares at you with pity, not even bothering for you to leave before they start gossiping. The overwhelming expectation that you talk, say something, anything, which pushes Wren into selective mutism. Memories of her past, in the form of flashes of events that flicker across her mind, or old photographs, or the endless replay of how things could have gone differently. Wren is drowning under the weight of grief and death, and she feels like no one around her really understands.

Lovely, Dark and Deep takes you so deep into Wren’s mind that it’s an intensely gripping and immersive read. This isn’t an abstract book where you sympathise with the main character but still feel a kind of separation; I kind of became Wren, in a way, and I fell really easily into the grief she felt, and how she responded. The things you do in times of grief can be irrational and bizarre to outsiders, but are totally logical to you, and McNamara captured that really well here, the sense that you’re trying to hold the world down before everything flies apart, and you can’t understand why everyone around you is freaking out. Why can’t they just chill and leave you alone when the slightest thing could imbalance the whole house of cards and send it crashing down?

Grief is something ugly and messy that many people don’t want to deal with—something I’ve discussed here before—and McNamara confronts these attitudes here. Wren is a messy, grieving, wounded character and her grief is very raw and fresh. It may be several months after the accident, but as a reader you don’t feel like she should be ‘over it.’ On the contrary, you start to resent the people who want her to act like nothing has happened; for those who think of grief as something that can and should be easily set aside, I think Lovely, Dark and Deep could be a really important and valuable book to read, because it contextualises grief and provides information about why some people can’t ‘get get over it’ and why it can take time to heal.

But healing does happen, if people are patient with people who are processing a loss. People often flounder in the face of a grieving person, unsure about how to deal with the emotions and just wanting them to stop, unaware that grieving people are floundering too, and many of them need help but don’t know how to ask, or are ashamed to ask, or feel like they should perform in a socially acceptable way while they’re dealing with this immense thing that is trying to eat them from the inside out. Treated with compassion and support, but without the weight of expectations, Wren begins to emerge from herself, slowly, over time.

She’s not magically better at the end of the book. But she’s starting to see a more balanced world, one where she can live without Patrick, one where it is possible to survive while still remembering her loss. This is not a story that sets up unreasonable expectations of sudden redemption and healing; it positions grief, and dealing with it, as a process. And also shows that there are lots of approaches to dealing with grief and all of them are valid. What works for Wren doesn’t necessarily suit other people, and vice versa.

Lovely, Dark and Deep also probes into some issues of physical disability beyond mental illness and issues with grief, which makes it standout among contemporary YA, as one of the main characters has a chronic medical condition. His handling speaks to a lot of important points about disability, especially in young adults; one of his big frustrations is about being treated as fragile or not-really-disabled because he’s so young, and he tires of constant check-ins, worried looks, or disdain when people see the crutches he uses for mobility. As someone living with a variable condition, he also struggles with the day-to-day changes that happen when you live with a condition that’s worse on some days than on others.

That he becomes an important part of the story without becoming A Special Lesson for Wren, or a project she uses to redeem herself, is so important. Both characters are represented as people who need help, and have something to offer each other as they work through their own grief; hers over the loss of her boyfriend, and his over the radical life changes he needs to face because of the onset of his disease.

Ultimately, this book is about the power of interdependence in the face of loss, and it’s structured and crafted so beautifully that it becomes a luxuriant pleasure to read even as you’re also feeling your heart break.