Review by Elizabeth Gibson
Based on the cover and blurb, Things I’m Seeing Without You appears to be a fairly standard Young Adult book dealing with loss and grief. There has recently been a spate of said books, some beautiful and insightful, some mawkish if not exploitative. As a result, I was curious to see how this one would fit into this sub-genre and what new ideas or comfort it could offer readers. The truth is: it really doesn’t fit at all. It is its own book, in a quirky, strange and admirable way.
Seventeen-year-old Tess leaves boarding school after her boyfriend, Jonah, commits suicide. She moves in with her father, who runs an unconventional funeral planning business – his clients include a dog, a racehorse and a former queen of burlesque. By helping him out, Tess is able to change the way she sees death, and gradually accept the fact that she has lost Jonah. Except… there’s a catch. She hasn’t entirely lost Jonah. Because some of the time that she believed she was talking to Jonah, she was actually talking to a catfish – an online fake – Daniel, who is still alive. Daniel then arrives unexpectedly in town, and he and Tess begin to plan a funeral for Jonah.
As you can probably tell, this is a story of twists and turns. It feels disjointed, as if the author couldn’t quite decide between writing a goofy family story about an unusual funeral business, a horror story about being deceived online, or a sentimental road trip novel, as Tess and Daniel eventually set off for Jonah’s dream destination of Sicily. However, grief can make life feel very disjointed, so I guess from that angle it makes sense. Tess’s age also seems very off and I suspect she may have been originally older, but made younger so that the book would appeal to a YA audience. For a seventeen-year-old some of her actions are worrying, to say the least.
Overall, however, I enjoyed this novel. It is different to anything else I’ve seen out there, and there is something unpretentious about it: Tess as a narrator is down-to-earth and ruthless, which can make her seem like a bully at times but which rings true for a grieving teenager. It is refreshing to read a US novel set in Minnesota rather than New York or California, and for the Italian part to be spread across various parts of Sicily rather than the more commonly-used and romanticised Venice or Rome. Mamie, the former burlesque dancer, is a great character, and other side characters such as Leroy, the racehorse owner, are vividly-described considering they only appear briefly. Tess’s father is well-drawn and evokes sympathy despite his past misdemeanours.
The mission of Things I’m Seeing Without You is clearly to challenge the way we view life, death and loss. While it didn’t exactly transform my thoughts on these subjects, it did provide some snatches of wisdom that will stay with me. On the whole, I’m glad I read this book.