Book Review: A Sense of the Infinite, Hilary T. Smith

Hilary T. Smith’s first book, Wild Awake, was a stunning, amazing, frenetic exploration of what it’s like to experience the awakening of mental illness and all the uncertainty and panic it can bring. Her writing was raw, authentic, driven, and deeply descriptive and atmospheric – and she’s brought the same level of talent to A Sense of the Infinite, which is anchored in a totally different setting, with radically different characters. While both books are contemporary and delve into some pretty heavy issues, Smith has an adroitness when it comes to building very distinctive worlds.

Sometimes when I read contemporary books and their sequels, I get the sensation that a writer really only knows one landscape, and writes within it over and over and over again. It’s a small town or a suburb or a big city. Characters inhabit very similar roles; they’re gymnasts/ballerinas/ice skaters. There’s almost a sense of the Mad Lib there, with a lingering sensation that the author has just turned to filling in the blanks rather than creating new and authentic stories with each text.

Smith doesn’t do that. Wild Awake and A Sense of the Infinite are in totally different landscapes and the characters are radically different from each other. A Sense of the Infinite also explores completely different topics around growing up into young adulthood and making challenging choices, or choices that are not so challenging; in the interest of not spoiling the plot, I don’t want to get into details, but there’s one issue in particular that Smith handles in a very fresh, decisive, crisp way that’s also daring, given the state of modern fiction and, honestly, politics. She wasn’t afraid to go there, and to build characters who challenge not just each other textually, but also the world at large; one of my favourite subplots, for example, is the mutual conspiracy between two characters as they become ‘Pee Sisters,’ defying the signs on the bathroom doors in a quest to make them mixed-gender.

A Sense of the Infinite is set in the senior year of the two characters, Noe and Annabeth, as they look into the future and try to determine where they are going to college and who they are going to be. The two have been firm friends since ninth grade, when they gravitated towards each other and created the sort of two-person unit that many teenage girls experience, developing a rich bond with another person in their lives. As the story progresses, though, we start to see cracks in their friendship, and the inkling of questioning; Annabeth starts to wonder if she and Noe are still destined to be friends forever, or if maybe it’s time for her to go her own way.

Smith packs a lot into this text, without making it feel cramped. On the one hand, there are her characters: Rich, alive, fully realised, complicated, and distinctive, something I have really come to expect from her writing and delight in after Wild Awake. I know that she’s capable of building great characters within great worlds, and she definitely demonstrated that here as in her first book. Her characters are amazing, and so are the relationships between them. It can be difficult to construct authentic young relationships, especially when they are under pressure; it’s easy to take cheap routes and shortcuts, and Smith didn’t do that. I especially love how Noe and Annabeth are so opposite to each other in so many ways, a Venn diagram, as Annabeth describes it, yet they manage to stick together for long perhaps because of that aspect of their personalities. The two girls find and seek something in each other that they cannot access elsewhere. Annabeth, for example, loves the woods, and is driven towards nature and the consumption of beauty in the outdoors; camping and canoeing, the prospect of joining the outdoor club in college. Noe prefers the indoors, the comfort and routine of gymnastics, a sport at which she excels, something that shows in her discipline and her driven nature.

As their friendship starts to shatter over the course of the book, the complexities of teenage life begin to develop, emerging from the shadows to create shadows of their own. It’s a really sharp, well-crafted look at what it’s like to feel the world shifting under you as you start to be pulled apart from your friends and you don’t understand why, and as you start to realise the consequences of decisions you’re making, both with and without your friends.

I’m used to seeing very formulaic approaches to relationships in YA; while it’s not unheard of, at all, for a book to take on the collapse of a friendship, Smith does it in a really interesting way, and she adds layers of complexity in turns of the new friends Annabeth meets, right down to the fantasy novel-loving nutritionist stationed in the depths of a neglected office. They sit together listening to books on tape, enjoying the mutual comfort of the presence of another human while they discuss issues in kind of a sideways, flickering manner.

This is a story that in many ways reminds me of the light shows Annabeth creates as she sits alone in the booth, trying to process what’s happening in her life. As she blends crossfading colours across the stage in a show no one will see, it’s a stark commentary on lonesomeness and how acute it can be, how intense the moment when you suddenly understand that everything you knew has tilted on its axis and cannot be put right again. When you can’t see in that position is that these shifts aren’t necessarily bad, just different, and the pervasive question in the text is whether Annabeth will adapt, or sink.