A review by Nalini Haynes
Jam’s parents sent her to the Wooden Barn, a school for fragile yet intelligent teenagers. At the Wooden Barn she’s selected for an elite class of 5 Special Topics in English, where she meets 4 other isolated teens and an unpredictable teacher, Mrs Quenell.
Mrs Quenell sets Sylvia Plath’s works as the texts for the entire semester. They learn about the Bell Jar, Plath’s short but tragic life and explore her poetry.
Meanwhile, their extra homework assignment is to write in a journal twice a week. When this select class writes in their journals, they’re transported to Belzhar, an alternate reality, where they experience life as it was before their trauma or life as it could have been.
Each character in this English class — Casey, Griffin, Sierra, Marc and Jam — traverses a rocky road, sharing their stories with one another as Jam shares them with the reader from a first person point of view in present tense (apart from flashbacks), creating an immediacy, a sense of urgency and an engagement with the characters.
If Belzhar was a movie, it’d pass the Bechdel Test because the girls have relationships separate to the guys as well as the guys having their own stories. A side character has bulimia. Someone discovers that she’s queer; issues arise that Wolitzer handles brilliantly.
I want to say more about the story but I’m concerned about spoilers; there are some twists in Belzhar that, if spoilt, could lessen enjoyment of the journey. I’ll just say that Belzhar does an excellent job of walking in that space where Literature, fantasy and young adult genres overlap. Highly recommended.
- Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
- ISBN: 9781471123764
- Format: paperback, 272 pages
- Publisher: Simon and Schuster