Boo, by Neil Smith. Vintage Contemporaries/Random House Canada. Out May 12.
Boo is one of my favourite books of the year so far. I was enthralled with it from front to back. I read it a couple months ago and I am *still* processing it and raving about it. I highly recommend it. Here’s why.
Boo (actually Oliver Darylmple) is a 13-year-old boy who’s writing a book to his parents from a type of heaven. He died in front of his locker at Hellen Keller Junior High on September 8, 1979, while reciting the periodic table of elements. He thinks it was because his heart has a hole in it and just couldn’t handle his excitement. It wasn’t.
When Boo wakes up, he knows he’s ‘dead’ because he can see the room around him clearly without glasses. It’s sort of like a hospital room. He’s lying in a single bed, covered in one sheet, in a windowless room. There’s a strange girl sleeping in a chair near him. When he startles her awake, he learns that her name is Thelma, he just materialized in that bed and is referred to as a newborn. He’s in a place called Town, where only kids who died at age 13 go.
Town is a lot like Earth but it’s run by children. They believe in a god, but they call him Zig. They have funny words for things. They don’t age physically, but they do grow wiser. They only get 50 years in Town, and then they materialize somewhere else, nobody knows. Some of them think they can find portals back to Earth.
“In my humble opinion, our heaven is founded on justice,” [says a ‘do-gooder’ committee member named Reginald.] “The justice of providing a child who lived only thirteen years with a normal life span.”
Heaven is a safer place for Boo than home was. A victim of extremely aggressive bullying and loneliness, nothing really seems to bother him except missing his parents. But just as Boo is getting accustomed to his new surroundings, another boy shows up at his new room’s door. It’s Boo’s classmate, Johnny Henzel. Boo being slightly naive and adorably polite, asks him if he, too, died of a heart defect.
Johnny runs his hands over his hair, scratching his scalp and wincing a bit. Finally, he stops scratching and says, “We didn’t die from a f*cking heart defect, Boo.” His voice is hoarse, shaky. “We got shot by some crazy kid at school.”
A scream. Not in the corridor outside my room, but in my mind. A memory of a scream that ran out in the hallway of Helen Keller.
My voice comes out in a whisper: “You must be mistaken.”
Johnny Henzel drops his knapsack. He moves toward me and opens his arms. He hugs me to him, his sweaty head resting on my bony shoulder. Even though I dislike being touched, even though I was never hugged by anybody but you two, I do not pull away, I pat between his shoulders, gently the way a mama does, as Johnny Henzel sobs and sobs in my arms.
It gets 100x better after that with 10x more plot twists. Seriously.
Johnny didn’t die right away. He lay in the hospital in a coma, but he could still hear people around him. He heard his sister lean in and say “Gunboy got you!” and that Gunboy couldn’t hurt him anymore, because he was dead too. Johnny doesn’t remember who it could have been, but Boo comes to the conclusion that it was likely another 13-year-old, so maybe he’s in Town too, despite Zig’s good-soul-only rule.
Boo and Johnny quickly embark on playing detectives, trying to find anything that could help them find Gunboy in Town. They form a strong, brotherly bond in a way they didn’t get to while still on Earth.
So the two face the question: what if Gunboy is actually there, what would they do? Nothing like that has ever happened in Town before and the ethics committees are quite puzzled. Boo and Johnny are joined by Thelma and another friend Esther when they try to visit other zones (neighbourhoods) and are confronted by different groups of Town citizens. Thelma and Esther are practically just as emotionally invested and will do what they can to protect the boys.
I must resist telling you more plot any further, so I don’t tell you too much. It continues to spiral in unexpected, fascinating ways. Boo is heart-wrenching, thrilling and a story of true courage.
And in addition, Boo tackles so much more context in between. Mental health (on Earth and in Town), bullying, IQ, age, race, body type, what one person is capable of, friendship, good and evil, etc. At first it felt like a lot to handle, but now I feel like everything fit in together eloquently.
I highlighted so much in this book; there are a lot of great quotes such as about the kinds of things Boo finds in his ‘job’ as a sorter of things Zig imports from Earth (typewriters but no photo copiers, yada yada), Boo’s memories of his parents, his observations of how people behave in Town, his quite funny personality and so much more. But I can’t quote any more without fear of giving anything away.
By the end of reading this book, I was exhausted but exhilarated. I can’t wait to see what is in store for the book, I hope it receives a lot of worthy acclaim, Boo deserves it.