Book Review: Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar is a difficult book to review without utterly spoiling the plot, and it’s definitely one of those books where you want to see the book unfold for yourself. Yet, it’s also utterly fantastic, so I wanted to flag it as a must-read, because, really, if you’re a YA fan, and if you love artful integrations of magical realism into contemporary books, and you like books with fascinating twists (or some combination of the preceding), Belzhar is definitely up your alley. Wolitzer’s deft, brilliant work kept me pounding along until the very end, and she very abruptly brought me up at the end of the rein at the very end, a trick that can backfire but worked quite well here, to my delight.

Jam Gallahue has been exiled to a boarding school for ‘troubled’ kids after traumatic events in her New Jersey hometown. She’s thrown into a bizarre relationship with her roommate, a girl with disordered eating habits, and she’s forced to navigate a world filled with people who have endured a variety of traumas, big and small — one of the things I actually really enjoy about this book is that Wolitzer explores the variability of trauma and treats traumas with equal respect. What for one person might seem minor to an observer is earth-shaking, and she doesn’t trivialise or dismiss traumas that might seem lesser in the grand scheme of things. While the book is less about issues than it is about characters, this nod to the way trauma works is a sharp reminder of the fact that, as they say, ‘everyone is fighting a hard battle.’

Much to Gallahue’s confusion, she’s thrown into an invitation-only class, Special Topics in English. The workshop accepts only a handful of students each year, hand-selected by the instructor, who plans to retire at the end of the semester. They’re the last students in a class that has become legendary around the school, with previous students alluding to the way it changed their lives forever, but refusing to talk about it. With all the prior students from the class graduated, the current class has nothing to guide them, and they’re thrown into what they think is one thing, but they quickly learn is another altogether.

In the course, the students focus on the work of a single writer all semester, digging deep into the writer’s biography and work. For this particular semester, Special Topics in English digs focus on Sylvia Plath, confronting The Bell Jar along with her poetry, discussing her work in exquisite detail when they meet, keeping journals that they’re expected to update regularly and turn in at the end of the semester, though the instructor notes that she won’t be reading them, that they are for the private development of the class and not for her eyes.

Over the course of the term, the students become more and more immersed in the world of their journals, using them to work through the traumas that brought them into the school. And over the course of the term, they also open up to each other, talking about their pasts, their futures, their fears. From being afraid, furious, and desperate to go home, Jam transitions to fiercely wanting to stay at the school so she can process the events that drove her there in the first place.

This is a book about stories nested within stories, about the power of both reading and writing, about the influence of trauma on your life and how you cope with it. It’s a crackling, intense, focused, and ultimately beautiful read — but also one with mythic proportions and wobbling boundaries with other worlds. Magical realism is one of my favourite genres, and it’s played very well here — to see why I describe the book that way, though, you’ll have to pick it up for yourself, because it’s a discovery best left allowed to unfold on its own.

One thing that really delighted me about Belzhar was the unfolding of ties and commentaries between characters. The character development over the course of the book was really well-executed and spot-on, but more than that, we also got to see how evolving as a person and confronting your trauma also changes the way you relate to other people. Everyone in this book has a past to address, secrets to hide, stories to explore, and Special Topics in English unlocks them, but they still have to step through the door. As Jam is forced to engage not just with her classmates but with the community at the school, she’s pulled further and further along the bitter narrative of what happened in New Jersey, watching it unfold all the way to the end while she clings to a more innocent version of her past.

It’s a book that fascinatingly tackles life, love, and other relationships. It’s also a book that speaks to the experiences of people struggling to find meaning and connections — while it’s focused on young adults, it might as well apply to people of any age, in any setting. Jam wants something elusive that she can’t quite settle on, and so do the other characters, in their own ways. They want resolutions, they want forgiveness, they want to turn back the clock. In Belzhar, they don’t necessarily find these things, but they do obtain the tools to work on them.

This isn’t a book about magical solutions for everyone, but rather about how people who want to make changes need to identify what those changes are before they can begin to work on them. It’s a lesson that often seems to get left by the wayside when we talk about our lives and our expectations for them — in order to build a better future for ourselves, we must be able to look honestly at the past.