Released 29 June 2017
Published by HarperCollins.
Review by Andrew Bailes.
Ali Standish’s predictable debut coming-of-age novel comes to a bookstore near you June 29th.
To understand the conception of Ali Standish’s debut, you first need to recognise her background as a teacher and programme administrator inside the American school system. Born from the author’s experience of working with children coping with a loss over a four year period, this novel attempts to tackle the subject of grief. Such a universal topic gives Standish the opportunity to reach out to all of us and establish a clear connection to the reader. However, in the pursuit of relatability the author instead creates a tepid, watered-down pool of characters with no clear interests, no ambitions, and no purpose. Ethan’s narration is a bland, lifeless vessel swallowed whole by the topic Standish is trying to tackle, repeating feelings in obvious statements instead of showing them to us in a unique way.
Caught in her own prose, Standish’s dialogue is also a mix of clichéd, old-fashioned phrases that simply don’t connect with the inner workings of her 12 year old characters. It is often stated that there is simply nothing new to discover in the coming-of-age genre, after such landmark books as The Catcher in the Rye; however more recent books such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time have managed to capture the interests of a generation. What works so well in those novels is a character-led narrative that steps easily into the shoes of its protagonist, creating a network of interests, ideals, flaws and ambitions across multiple characters. Fundamentally, this is where The Ethan I Was Before falls short.
One redeeming feature of Standish’s novel is a real flair for thriller-esque writing. Suspense in the abandoned house sequence between Ethan, Coralee and the woman, and again in the climactic ending of the novel, gives a refreshing dose of entertainment. However, the novel centres around two plot twists, revealed part way through and towards the end of the story, that are simply too easy to predict. By glancing at the novel’s cover, and then reading with little detective work, you can understand the obvious turn of events about to unfold.
The Ethan I Was Before was conceptualised to help young people better understand and deal with grief; a noble and positive ambition which I hope touches many people much more passionately than it did myself.