June 27, 2013

Kimberly Sabatini: "Touching the Surface"

Title: Touching the Surface [on Amazon | on Goodreads]
Series: None
Author: Kimberly Sabatini [Site | Goodreads]
Genres: Afterlife
Year: 2012
Age: 12+
Stars: 3/5
Pros: Different and inventive take on the afterlife. Conveys poignant imagery.
Cons: Connections and relationships among main characters are a bit hard to swallow. Displays some annoying details and repetitions (see review).
WARNING! Includes not one, but two hints at two love triangles. They're not what they seem though. If I was able to stomach them, you will too ;). Well, I guess. *shrugs*
Will appeal to: Those who like a quiet, visual book. Those who believe in second chances and the redeeming power of love...

Blurb: When Elliot finds herself dead for the third time, she knows she must have messed up, big-time. She doesn’t remember how she landed in the afterlife again, but she knows this is her last chance to get things right. Elliot just wants to move on, but first she will be forced to face her past and delve into the painful memories she’d rather keep buried. Memories of people she’s hurt, people she’s betrayed…and people she’s killed. As she pieces together the secrets and mistakes of her past, Elliot must find a way to earn the forgiveness of the person she’s hurt most, and reveal the truth about herself to the two boys she loves…even if it means losing them both forever. (Amazon)

Review: I have conflicting emotions about this book. While there are aspects of it I loved, they pose some problems nevertheless. The writing style bugged me a little too - but I will elaborate later. Let's start with a little background...
Elliot's afterlife is called the Obmil - and it's easy to figure out why. It is a kind of Limbo by all means, but its structure and rules are peculiar...also, most of the souls who get there won't leave for a higher realm, but will get a new chance at life in a new body instead, in order to complete their growth plan if need be. Apparently, one can hit the Obmil up to three times (Elliot herself is a Third Timer), but there's no mention of what is supposed to happen if a soul doesn't figure out her/his mistakes after the third visit. There's only a hint at having to deal with consequences if one lingers in the Obmil too much, but it comes from a character that might have something specific in mind...related to her personal experience. This will be clear by the end of the story - which is, by the way, where the concepts of Heaven and Hell are cleverly addressed and explained...or better, guessed by the characters. I loved the final revelation about them all and the roles they actually play at the Obmil, as much as I loved the author's take on Heaven and Hell, because it is a detour from our classic vision of the afterlife, and provides a fluid, antidogmatic (and antihierarchic) portrayal of it. Also, I loved how everyone at the Obmil has the power of creating different landscapes, according to their emotions and inner turmoils. This recurring theme will be masterly used in the last section of the book in order to create a satisfying - but nevertheless open - ending.
On the other hand, the different lives bugged me. Elliot and Julia are both Third Timers; in their first life, they were twin brothers who died together in their sleep at an old age. They came back as women and met through a divorce support group, becoming best friends. In this second life, Elliot (Samantha back then) died at forty in a plane crash, but we aren't told how and when Julia (Emma) landed in the Obmil again. In their third life, Elliot and Julia (dead at 17 and 19 respectively) have never met. This doesn't prevent Elliot from nicknaming her "Jules" when they're reunited in the afterlife, which is a bit weird, though they share a past in their other lives. But what I really find weird is the different sexes/ages/personality issue. For one thing, how can Elliot remember her past lives as a longevous bachelor and a cheated-on grown woman and still feel like the young girl she lately was? Won't the different lives and past experiences interfere? Though, as a matter of fact, Elliot doesn't remember her latest life yet - not really. And she's in the dark about the how and why of her latest death too. Like any other soul at the Obmil, she will need to undergo a series of Delves in order to regain complete self-awareness and deal with her mistakes, hopefully righting them in the process. [...] 

The relationships among Elliot and fellow afterlifers Trevor and Oliver - and the role Julia plays in one of them - bugged me too. I can't be more specific of course (spoiler-free blog, remember?), but I don't buy all the couple dynamics. In short, Elliot and Trevor have a huge secret each, things they can't even remember themselves at first. And, oddly enough, they're trying to uncover those secrets, instead of keeping them hidden - because that's what souls at the Obmil have to do in order to move on. (Note: I assume that both Trevor and Oliver are Third Timers too, though it's not specified - anyway, they did meet Elliot when she was a Second Timer). Said secrets revolve around Oliver and the way he died...speaking of which, neither Elliot nor Trevor can't remember the way they died, and are soon to find out that they need each other in order to figure it out. So they begin to Delve together, despite their initial, mutual aversion. In the meantime, Oliver is introduced as the potential third side in a love triangle, and Julia complicates the matter further. All these are common trophies in YA (and even adult) literature, though I must admit Sabatini manages to retain a light hand in using them. Also, Elliot shares an history with one of the boys (though she has a connection with the other too...), so it's not a case of instalove or such. Anyway, while all these relationships are believable at the Obmil, I have issues with some of them - and the very reason why Oliver died - happening in the characters' latest lives. Also, the way Trevor reacted to a certain family situation when he was alive is a bit overdone IMO, while, on the other hand, his ability to forgive sounds too good to be true - though he bore his own share of guilt in life.
There's a side story about Julia too, which we learn through Elliot's eyes - because, apparently, she can experience Julia's Delves (along with Trevor's), another thing that I found odd. This potentially tragic story is only touched upon though.
In the end, I have to spend a couple of words about the writing stile. There are frequent repetitions that frankly annoyed me, especially because they revert around details like Elliot's ponytail or cuticles (I'm not kidding - she seem on a mission to destroy her own hands sometimes). Allusions to the "surface" are scattered along the novel without mercy, though in all honesty I wasn't able to understand how they were relevant to the story (the title itself left me puzzled). Also, the book sounds overdescriptive at times, when it comes to Elliot's stream of consciousness.
Bottom line, I don't regret reading this book at all, but it had the potential to be much more IMHO. Still it's an interesting debut with some fresh ideas and great visuals, so it won't disappoint fans of afterlife tales, while those who enjoy romances will likely appreciate it more than me :).

For quotes from this book click here.
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