Friday, January 6, 2012

Novel in Verse - Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Rarely am I at a loss to describe a book, or even to write a review of it.

Rarely does an author so take my breath away that upon finishing her work, I am immediately moved to reread it.

Rarely does a book like Thanhha Lai's come along.

If you haven't read a novel-in-verse, you may be put off by the format. I was, for a very long time, until reading Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust. In a word, that book was stunning - it captures the experience of living in Dust Bowl Oklahoma in a voice that is spare and beautiful. Since then I've read a few others, but none quite comes close to Lai's Inside Out and Back Again.

Lai's debut novel (winner of the National Book Award) is a story based on her own experience, that of ten-year-old Ha, who with her family escapes Saigon in the wake of the Vietnam War. Ha's life is marked by loss - her father went missing in action before Ha's first birthday, her mother has drawn gradually away with the stress of supporting the whole family. And now the war - Ha's best friend flees with her family, and the loss continues. At last it becomes clear that Ha's family also must go, but with no clear idea exactly where they will end up. The escape, the boat journey, the terror of floating aimlessly with no rescue in sight - this is all part of Ha's story, as is her arrival in a strange land called Alabama, where not even a taste of her favorite fruit can bring back the feeling of her homeland.

Lai tells Ha's story with a fierce tenderness that speaks to the personal nature of the tale. Her decision to write the novel in verse is, in my estimation, a brilliant one, as it allows for the kind of stark imagery that brings the entire experience to vivid life. Bursts of humor break the tension, but never do we forget that this is a journey not only of physicality, but also of identity and of learning to find one's place in a strange land.

Like Lai's prose, Ha herself instantly captures you. She's sneakily brilliant: on the first morning of the new year, Ha tells us, male feet should touch the floor first, for luck -- but Ha wants to be the first, so she creeps her toe out of the covers to tap the ground. She's determined: her strength shines through every line, every thought, every vignette. Though the world she knew gradually slips away from her, Ha clings to her faith in herself and her family. Never does her beautiful, bright determination waver, never does her spirit become worn away.

I read this in one quick burst -- I couldn't help it -- but then went back and read shorter portions, savoring the language, the imagery, the sense of place and time and personality. This is a gorgeously written portrait of a girl whose experience echoes over and over in refugees the world over. Absolutely compelling - one of my new favorites.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, published by HarperCollins
Ages 9 up
Source: Library
Sample: "Water, water, water / everywhere / making me think / land is just something / I once knew / like / napping on a hammock / bathing without salt / watching Mother write / laughing for no reason / kicking up powdery dirt / and / wearing clean nightclothes / smelling of the sun."
Highly recommended

Bonus: Thanhha Lai's interview with Publisher's Weekly


RachelMaryBean said...

I love novels in verse! I coach speech at our local high school and we love taking cutting from novels in verse for the poetry category. I am always on the look out for great ones, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Great write-up. I just got this book from the library. I normally don't read novel-in-verse but I have heard such great things about this book.

Carrie Monroe said...

I've heard wonderful things about this book. Thanks for reviewing it. I will have to add it to my TBR pile.

The Pen and Ink Blog said...

Wow! Sounds like a great read. Thank you.

Kelly Butcher said...

It is so great to see another blogger love this book as much as I did. This was my first novel in verse- and I loved it- it read like a "novel" and not a "poem". This book could very well take the Newbery, don't you think?
(I'm stopping by from The Comment Challenge!)

Amy said...

I keep putting this on hold at my library, and then end up having to return it before I manage to get it read. Your review has convinced me to put my name on the waiting list one more time!

Dorine White said...

Just like you did, I feel wary to read books in verse. But it is something I really need to try.

Joanna said...

Mary, I have just replied on my blog to you that I shall be reviewing more books on Africa and I come over here to his heart-touching review crossing very different cultures. Thank you. I love novels in verse and would love to read Ha's story.

Beth said...

Wow, I tend to drag my feet about books written in verse but you make this one seem worth trying! Thanks for the enthusiastic review.

Michelle Cusolito said...

Oh, this book as been on my "To Read" list for a while now. Now I'll definitely jump it to the top.

I love your "sprout" images. I landed here and knew I wanted to read more.

As an aside, you might want to check out this blog:

Full disclosure...It's my friend Alison's blog, but she's won several awards (From Adoptive Families, Circle of Moms, etc). We co-authored a PB we're submitting to publishers now. One of the main characters is part of a family formed through international adoption.

JenFW said...

I have no problem with novels in verse. In fact, I don't find them all that different from novels, except they seem to be shorter and faster to read.

I'm curious what the resistance is to novels in verse.

mary kinser said...

Thanks everyone for the wonderful comments. Michelle, I love your friend's blog and will definitely be reading more. I'd love to look at your book when it is published (crossing fingers for you as you submit it).

Jen, I can't speak for others, but I think my own resistance to novels in verse is because I always thought they would be like an epic poem, long and dense and full of hidden imagery. Once I broke through that barrier I realized how powerful this form can be. And honestly, some books, Lai's included, I can't imagine being written in any other form.

Beth said...

A lot of novels in verse don't really seem like poetry to me, just prose with strange line breaks. And that bugs me! A novel in verse should be a book told in poems, and poetry is very demanding. A book with short lines is faster to read, but it's not a novel in verse.

And the definition of poetry is very personal.

Playing by the book said...

I read a beautiful retelling of a folk tale recently re-written entirely in verse (The Seal Hunter by Tony Mitton) and it made me want to put it to song. That might be quite hard for a novel, but it did make me think about how stories were passed on before they were written down.

Caryl said...

Isn't this a gorgeous book? I read it just before it won the National Book Award, and only because my mom pressed her library copy into my hands, saying, "I read this yesterday and I have two weeks left to keep it. This is an amazing story. Read it!!" I'm so glad I did.

And glad to discover your blog! (I'm here because of the Comment Challenge, too.)