Review: Nothing by Janne Teller

Janne Teller, translated by Martin Aitken
February 2010 

When Pierre Anthon realizes that nothing matters, he drops of out his seventh grade less and sits in a plum tree, taunting his classmates with facts about the briefness of their lives and meaninglessness of everything in them. Determined to prove Pierre Anthon wrong and show how meaningful their lives are, Pierre’s classmates begin to collect items with meaning. They start with photos and small trinkets but move quickly on to other things – Agnes’ favorite green sandals, a pet hamster, a bike. As the kids demand greater and greater sacrifices from each other, the game takes on a life of its own, and things turn very bad very quickly.

I’ve struggled with this one for the better part of a week now. I gave it five stars, then changed it to three, then upped it to four. Even now, writing this review, I’m not quite sure what to make of  it. The Goodreads blurb compares Nothing to Lord of the Flies, which is the most apt comparison I can come up with too. Like Lord of the Flies, this is a story about adolescents run amok, children who discover they don’t have to play by all the implicit rules and values on which society’s existence depends. It’s depressing as hell, too, and it’s not something to read for entertainment value alone.

But. Having thought about it for days, I think that Nothing was pretty amazing, actually. I appreciate reading young adult literature that’s more than fun, more an coming-of-age, something that’s a thought-exercise more than a story. That kind of writing isn’t uncommon in adult literature, but it’s more difficult in literature aimed specifically at adolescents. Agnes is a particularly effective narrator because she’s neither the ring-leader nor the naysayer, just part of a crowd who gets swept along into some very horrible things. Agnes isn’t exceptional in any way-she’s an everywoman, she’s us-and yet she’s a willing participant in the heap of meaning. This book is interesting-it’s been a little burr in my brain since I finished it–and it’s different. So much of the YA I read, while enjoyable, well-written, and often moving, is basically the same thing draped in a different storyline. Nothing reads like adult fiction in that it’s unusual. It’s a coming-of-age story in the least palatable of senses. I think Teller succeeds at what she’s trying to do, and while it isn’t fun, it’s though-provoking and stays with you.

Recommended for grades 7 and up, preferably with lots of discussion to accompany it. My review copy came from the library.

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