Review: Klickitat, Peter Rock

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy of the book provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered. 

Klickitat is a seriously weird book — if I was going to compare it with something, We Were Liars or Wink Poppy Midnight come up, both because of certain narrative structures and the difficulty of talking about these books, in that almost everything I can say would spoil the text. (I promise I will not do that here.) It’s rich, strange, atmospheric, and deeply rooted in character development, rather than plot, which is exactly the kind of book I love. I am fine with rambling for hundreds of pages as long as characters are doing interesting things, which they do here — and there’s no rambling, to boot.

So, first off, you definitely want to read this book. If you like unreliable narrators and you enjoy plot development and really beautiful writing, which, to be honest, doesn’t everyone, Klickitat is definitely going to be your jam. If this isn’t reason enough, it’s based in Portland, playing with the city in new and interesting ways that draw upon the strange blend of urban and wild that runs through the city, which is mutating into a new and fascinating identity right before our eyes.

When Audra runs away from home, her younger sister, Vivian, feels abandoned and slighted — she’s deeply attached to her sister and feels a sense of loss when Audra flits off into the night. Long before Audra left, though, they’ve had a complicated relationship to each other, and to the world. Audra feels better in the freedom of the outdoors, hating school and the trappings of modern life and preferring the wilds, learning how to support herself on her own and longing to disappear into a place where no one can follow.

Vivian, though, has a disability that is never clearly articulated in the book, coming through instead in fragments and pieces, and I like the way it’s handled. This book really hasn’t been pitched as a disability book, because that’s not what it’s about, and her disability doesn’t define her, but it’s an important part of her identity, and it also plays into the structure of the narrative and how things ultimately turn out, so it’s definitely something that should be addressed.

She experiences a strange sense of separation from the world at times, but also has intense panic attacks. Sometimes, she finds herself clinging to the person closest to her, with an iron grip that she says no one can break — with Audra being the only one willing to let her ride it out. Vivian also has a life jacket that she wears sometimes, strapping it down tight when she feels like she’s being overwhelmed. The experience of her disability makes it sound like she’s somewhere along the autism spectrum, though her parents have paraded her through an array of doctors and have given her an assortment of medications.

Her diagnosis, if there is one, is never made clear to her, so the reader is also left in the dark. And one thing the book probes at is attitudes about medication, with Vivian’s mother in particular being aggressive about needing to take her pills, while Vivian isn’t sure why she is taking them and thus if she should be taking them, as Audra urges her to abandon them. It follows a spectrum of social attitudes from the notion that ‘pills are poison’ and big pharma is out to get everyone to the use of medication to suppress neurodiversity, rather than allowing people to be who they are or providing children with information and the tools to make autonomous decisions.

As we learn more about who Vivian is, Audra returns to the picture, coming back for her as she always claimed she would, and then Vivian is drawn along on a complicated adventure — and here, we get to the departure point where I can’t talk about the book any further, because to do so would be to spoil you, and this is a narrative best enjoyed when you don’t know what happens. It does, however, explore the relationship between sisters, and the tensions that can arise as children grow up into themselves, find their own identities, and discover their autonomy, sometimes to the displeasure of those around them.

In a sense, Klickitat is about many children’s secret dreams, of running away from home to live in the woods and be free from the pressures of the world, no school, no homework, no overbearing parents. But it’s also about the gritty mechanics and realities of what that looks like, even as Audra and Vivian fantasise about lives beyond Portland, beyond the reach of their parents, beyond the culture they live in. They have high-minded ideas about the world and its potential, and they long for something slightly just out of reach that they will grasp at throughout the book anyway.

Some things about Klickitat are not perfect — there’s an uncomfortable tension to explore with exactly why Vivian is an unreliable narrator, whether it’s because of her disability, because she decides to stop taking her medication at the urging of her sister, because that’s just who she is. And there are elements of the story that do work to exceptionalise her disability, also troubling because of what they say about how we depict neurodiversity and people on the autism spectrum. This is not an uncomplicated narrative, and my relationship to the book is also complicated, but it is still worth reading, and it’s worth talking about — once you can find other people who have read it, of course.

Image: Rusty Scissors, Miranda Wood, Flickr