My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga, HarperCollins
TW: Suicide, depression, death
“We have to do it on April 7th. That date isn’t negotiable. Message me for more information.”
Aysel (pronounced Uh-zel), a 16-year-old who is consumed by suicidal thoughts, frequents a web forum called Smooth Passages while she procrastinates at a miserable job. Smooth Passages links dark souls who want to leave the world with someone. Because no matter how alone depression can feel, some people still need to feel a connection. When Aysel reads a post by “FrozenRobot,” she is intrigued. He poses three requirements: that the partner is someone who doesn’t have children, that they live within an hour away from him and that they agree to commit to darkness on April 7th.
So, here we are. April 7th.
I read this book within two days. Besides currently being in a kick of reading YA novels about mental health, this story grabbed onto me and didn’t let me go. I was visiting family this weekend, but my gaze was turned to the pages. I’m even nauseous in cars as soon as I get in them, but I tried reading on a ride. When everyone went to sleep, I stayed up and finished the book. My Heart and Other Black Holes is tender, young and not at all lost like its subjects.
Aysel and FrozenRobot (named Roman) are two teenagers who have gone through traumatic events and they don’t know how to keep living with the aftermath.
Aysel is a physics nerd loner who listens to classical music. She’s haunted and paranoid after her father murdered a classmate of hers who was on his way to the Olympics. She feels completely abandoned now that her once-beloved father is in prison and she must live with her mother and step family. She’s the only darker-skinned Turkish person in a small Kentucky town. Her light-skinned mother married a country guy and birthed two blonde children. She thinks everyone else in town wishes she was gone and blames her for the murder. She feels ostracized and misunderstood. But that’s not why she wants to kill herself. She wants to kill herself so that she doesn’t become her father. Mental illness can be hereditary, and she’s convinced one day she’ll turn out like he did. She wants to save herself and everyone else from the potential monster. Until then, that monster, which she dubs the black slug, lives in her stomach and eats every good thought and feeling.
“I want to say that I know for sure that I’m different from my dad. That my heart beats in a different rhythm, my blood pulses at a different speed. But I’m not sure. Maybe the sadness comes just before the insanity. Maybe he and I share the same potential energy.”
Roman is a 17-year-old who lives 15 minutes away from Aysel. He used to be popular and a basketball star at his school. He knew the boy Aysel’s father murdered. He has a pet turtle named Captain Nemo and an overly attached mother. Most days he can’t get out of bed. He feels responsible for his little sister’s death on the past April 7th. He cannot live with the guilt, knowing that he should have paid more attention to his sister when he was babysitting her.
“FrozenRobot does have a frozen quality. All of his movements and facial expressions have a tension to them, like he was carved out of stone and locked in a chamber of ice and recently brought back to life. I don’t know how to describe it, but the more I stare at him, the more I see his grief wrapped around him like shackles he can never take off.”
Aysel seems to have a pretty good understanding of her depression. She knows what to call it and why she feels certain ways. She learns that depression is best understood by someone else who has experienced it.
“What people never understand is that depression isn’t about the outside; it’s about the inside. Something inside me is wrong. Sure, there are things in my life that make me feel alone, but nothing makes me feel more isolated and terrified than my own voice in my head.”
But she even has her misgivings – she assumes just because Roman has friends and he still seems concerned with his appearance, he wouldn’t want to off himself. Plus, he smiles. Crooked, half moon smiles. Aysel learns that just because people smile, doesn’t mean they can’t be depressed. But she eventually sees he also carries a black slug.
Aysel and Roman promise they won’t flake as Suicide Partners, but soon things begin to change, because being Suicide Partners is a lot like dating, and it feels good to be needed and to have someone to relate to. The story counts down the 25 days left to get their affairs in order, so they take on multiple tasks for each other.
“There’s something poetic about the fact that the first boy to ever ask for my number is the same boy I’m going to die with.”
Aysel cracks her first smile in months when she’s with Roman. Then she starts to smile and laugh more. She gets excited when she’s around him. He gets her. But he is set on dying with her, not dating her. It’s not just because of a boy that Aysel starts to notice new aspects of her life, though. Her love of physics reminds her of the theory of relativity – that a lot of what we see is our perception. Depression’s solitary nature can sometimes create walls around a person, so nobody can get out or in. It can cloud thoughts and cause paranoia. Someone else’s worry can be interpreted as judgement.
As Aysel starts to feel better, panic sets in. How does one depressed person convince another depressed person to try to stay alive?
My Heart and Other Black Holes is a great read for its interesting perspective on the YA mental health genre. It shows both ends of the spectrum – from hopeless to hope.
It examines how depression affects relationships and vice versa. Aysel pushes her friends away and is pushed away by others. Her family doesn’t seem to know how to talk to her and so she interprets that as shame, which doesn’t help the cycle. Roman’s mother is spending so much time making sure he seems like a normal kid again that she doesn’t talk to him about how he’s feeling or how she’s feeling. And Aysel and Roman can only connect with each other because there’s a little bit of understanding and a lot of distraction.
It is also a great representation of an internal monologue for depression. Aysel repeats herself a lot, calls everything ‘the worst,’ makes grand assumptions for things to be awful. She constantly worries but is in tune with her feelings and thoughts. She puts herself down any chance she gets. She refuses to commit to things after April 7th because she thinks she’ll be gone by then. She fantasizes dying, but never seems to be too scared of any physical pain unless it means she failed to kill herself. Jasmine Warga was a teacher before writing this, her first novel, so I’m assuming tapping into an adolescent’s depressed thought processes wasn’t too hard. Aysel’s narrative flows well so you can feel close to someone who feels so alone.
Throughout the book, you’ll be silently rooting for Aysel and Roman to figure things out before April 7th, but you too will be perplexed as to how they can deal with such horrible traumas. I don’t know how I would.
Seeing as My Heart and Other Black Holes has joined this YA mental health trend in literature, the movie rights have already been purchased. I’m not too sure how the story will play out on film as a lot of it takes place in a car or in bedrooms, but I have hope for it.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and felt it was a very important read. I want to stress how important books like this are. I don’t think I ever read anything like it when I was in high school. Even before reading it, I wanted to recommend it to the teenage girls at the bookshop who were looking for something to read. And I’m not pausing reading about teen mental health any time soon – I’ve got about two or three more book posts coming soon. Have you ever read a book like this? Let me know any recommendations.