Book Review: All Our Pretty Songs, by Sarah McCarry

Note: This review is based on a copy provided by the author. And there are spoilers below!

If you don’t know Sarah McCarry yet, you had better get on it, because this woman is amazing, and I’m not just saying that because I think of her as a friend. She’s a fabulous writer with a lyrical, elegant, beautiful style, and a brilliant way of wrapping words around her little finger to spin them into complicated dreams that will consume you if you let them. She excels in both the fiction and nonfiction realms, with a rare talent for producing very flowing, original prose which never falters or peters out, a common problem I’ve found with longreads and booklength works that are as rich and luscious as McCarry’s tend to be. Believe me, this lady is Going Places, as they say.

So to say that I was excited when I heard about All Our Pretty Songs would be an understatement. I couldn’t wait to read the book (and its sequel, due next year), because I knew Sarah was going to do something amazing, and she totally has. This is a book about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It’s uncomfortable and sharp and hard, even when the prose is so beautiful that you feel like you’re floating. And it is, at its heart, a fucking amazing story about love, race, culture, and how, sometimes, you don’t get what you want. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Our narrator has a strangely twinned relationship with Aurora, the daughter of a rock star who died early and tragically, and his wife, left behind to sink into a pool of drugs. Her mother Cass looks after her as best she can but basically lets her run wild, which is how Aurora and the narrator meet Jack one summer night, and everything goes downhill from there as the two are flung into a world of magic and miracles, shimmering beauty and things that are deep, dark, and sinister. This is a messy and tangled story and it doesn’t progress like one might expect it to.

Jack and Aurora sell their souls to the devil to get the things they want most in the world, and our narrator takes it upon herself to rescue them. She loves them so much that she’s willing to go anywhere for them, including into the underworld, even though she’s terrified of the devil and all that comes with him, haunted by dreams of a dark wood that she wanders nightly. What she finds when she sets out to help them, though, isn’t what she expected.

Jack turns her down, choosing art over her, which is a stark, savage, cruel departure from the way young adult often goes. Instead of ending her search for Jack with a happy, everyone gets together in the end and lives in glory ending, Sarah chose to leave Jack broken and strung out, close to the edge of a precipice, deliberately choosing to turn down an offered hand of help. She chose to have a love interest refuse to fit into the love interest role, stressing for readers that some people need to chose art, and that some people need to chose themselves; our narrator has to come to her own important realisation about why she’s really trying to rescue Jack.

Still convinced that she can save Aurora, she travels into the heart of the underworld to wrestle her friend back from the hands of the devil and Minos, the sinister man who serves him. She’s compelled to draw for them, putting the story of her life and experiences out on paper, and when the devil eventually decides that she can take Aurora with her into the real world, back to humanity, she carries her friend all the way up out of hell, determined to do for Aurora what no one else seems willing to, to show Aurora that she is ferociously and definitively loved.

Yet, Aurora too turns her down, returning to hell where she can be with her father and live a very different life than the one she lived on the surface. Our narrator is left alone in a hospital bed recovering from the injuries of her journey, and the heartbreak of a lifetime; being abandoned by her best friend, the girl she thinks of as the other half of herself, and her lover, the boy she felt such a connection to that she thought their relationship would end up mattering more than art, music, or anything else to him.

As a coming of age story, All Our Pretty Songs is brutal, and it’s about a harsh reality. The narrator doesn’t get the happy ending that seems to be so desirable in so much YA right now; this is not a book about how everything works out in the end. It’s a book about how sometimes, life is unrelentingly awful and you lose everything you love, and you still need to figure out how to rebuild and make something of what is left. You need to stitch the pieces of yourself back together and find out who you are after your heart has been ripped away.

Sometimes, growing up requires venturing into the underworld and back again with nothing to show for it. It makes for a stark, beautiful, elegant story wrapped in Sarah’s incredible, ethereal prose, in which the language is so stunning that it is in parts orchestral; her deft command of English demonstrates that young adult can be highly literary, and more than that, that literary YA has a place in the market. This is a book that should become an instant cult classic, in all its glorious darkness. If it doesn’t, it’s going to be a grave injustice.