Touched by teen suicide


ORCHARDS, by Holly Thompson. Illustrations by Grady McFerrin. Delacorte Press, 2011, 325 pp., $17.99 (hardcover)

Great suffering etches images of itself into human emotions. Holly Thompson uses this psychological reality to frame an arresting and authentic novel in verse. “Orchards” is a collection of spare and painful images that cut through the romanticism to underline the tragic reality of teen suicide.

Images beset the reader as they haunt the narrator of “Orchards,” Thompson’s third book and first young adult novel. Kana Goldberg, half Jewish-American, half Japanese, returns to her mother’s ancestral home, a mikan farm in rural Japan, and struggles to understand a classmate’s suicide.

Kana remembers “those left out/ those harassed/ those orbiting in unstable outer circles.”

She longs to tell her dead friend about “mountaintop/ jutting/ and the way the gray-blue of it/ materializes from the haze.”

She rails against a world that leaves a living thing “tied by one leg/ the blinking crow/ sways/ in the breeze.”

The effective use of poetic imagery in Kana’s sparse voice renders a painful journey of self-awareness into something quietly beautiful and resonating with authenticity.

Thompson’s devotion to this authenticity brims from every page: Not only did she spend one year as volunteer working on a mikan farm in Japan, but also she consulted with child psychologists and experts in the field.

Thompson has been touched by suicide within her family and among her friends. She dedicates the novel “to survivors everywhere.”

A teacher and mother of an adolescent girl, Thompson has crafted a thoughtful novel in poetry, a study in style and subject matter. “Orchards” becomes a lesson in both emotion and culture and will surely engage classroom discussion.

The author also satisfies the adolescent inside us all and the inner voice that tells us when fiction is phony.

“Orchards” is anything but phony, and the untarnished reality it portrays provides an ultimately uplifting message for anyone affected by suicide.

The reliance in “Orchards” on images instead of conventional prose severs the barrier between reader and narrator and we therefore gain wisdom alongside young Kana.

In the final pages, Thompson’s narrator crafts something lasting and beautiful from the broken fragments of lives splintered by suicide. Thompson has managed the same with this touching work.