Review: When We Were Alive

I have been away for a while again haven’t I? I do so hate it when real life stops me from doing blogging. I’m back now though, my mojo sorta returned and to make up for it I have a list of books I’ve read that I want to talk to you about and maybe even a special guest. We’ll talk about that later though, because right now I wanna talk about this:

I went into CJ Fisher’s When We Were Alive not really sure what to expect.

Do I need to mention that Fisher is also on YouTube under the handle Ophelia Dagger? Most people probably already know that already. I didn’t; I’ve seen her videos but hadn’t realised that this was her. I’m not actually sure how relevant it is, actually, because I’m not here to tell you that you ought to read this book because books by YouTubers are super cool. I’m telling you to read this book because YouTube Channel or not, CJ Fisher is A Very Good Writer. I tell you, for a debut, this is seriously good. In fact, that might be unfair. Probably I should just say that it’s good, because it is.

It’s very wordy, which, well I loved. All the pretty words, all of the time thank-you please, and it’s very cleverly written, with three equally excellent stories interwoven together and taking us from 2011 to the 1970’s to the 1930’s and back again, each voice sharp and unique and strong with a mixture of third person narrative and letters from a young boy to the Mother he doesn’t know. It’s witty and clever and very perceptive and I was gripped. Utterly gripped.

Lemme tell you a bit about it because I’m being vague, and being vague does not a helpful review make.

It’s three stories – I said that already I know, bear with - seemingly unconnected stories, told independently of one another but woven together so intricately that sometimes it makes your breath catch. Themes are repeated and ideologies are repeated and it’s so damn clever that you don’t even realise it right away. I love that.

In 2011 you’ve got Myles. Myles is in his early 20’s and though it’s never explicitly stated you can’t help but think he places somewhere on the Autism Spectrum. He reminds me a little of Charlie a little bit, from Perks. He tells his story, random and wonderful and a little bittersweet as it is, through the letters he pens to the Mum he never knew – gimme all the epistolary stories please – and he’s candid and honest and open even though sometimes he’s a little bit inappropriate and he’s really intriguing. Probably not the most reliable of narrators lets be honest but that’s kind of the appeal.

Then, in the 70’s there’s Will who is on a path to self destruction in a bid to just feel. He gets drunk in a hotel in Vegas and meets a girl. Dawn turns his life upside down. Will’s kind of fascinating, a bit of a train wreck, and you kind of want to help him, to save him, and at the same time (because you know he’s not real) you want to sit back and watch, see where, exactly he’s going to end up.

Then further back still, right back to the 1930’s and Bobby. We meet Bobby when he’s 12 and he’s a misfit and he wants to be a magician and he has no friends but his parents until he meets Rose. Rose who becomes his friend quite by accident and is part of his story through WWII and after and Bobby might be my favourite actually, partly because of the setting of his story and partly because he sort of makes your chest tight. Gah. I love him.

It’s a book about life, skipping from one decade to the next and back again and showing you with no holds barred these snapshots into these three lives and making you root for them, ache for them, believe in them. There are twists and there are turns, there are things you see coming and sometimes you find yourself saying ‘oh hello foreshadowing’ and things that you absolutely did not see coming but at all. It’s not a barrel of laughs (and I know, I hear you say: probably that’s why I liked it so) but it’s a good book. It’s about love and it’s about life and it’s about how with the passage of time some things remain the same even as others change beyond recognition. It’s about how sometimes things look truly fucking awful but you have to find a way to pick yourself up and carry on. It’s a book that wraps it’s arms around you and clings; you can’t help but be absorbed. I cannot wait to see where Fisher goes next.