REVIEW: ‘Even If We Break’ by Marieke Nijkamp grows from compelling to unfocused

 

The diversity portrayed in ‘Even If We Break’ is important, but it isn’t enough to salvage a disappointing story.

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Marieke Nijkamp’s new novel boasted shock-factor, tension, thrills and drama. Only one of those promises was ever fulfilled.

From the Blurb:

For five friends, this was supposed to be one last getaway before going their separate ways ― a chance to say goodbye to each other, and to the game they’ve been playing for the past three years. But they’re all dealing with their own demons, and they’re all hiding secrets.

Finn doesn’t trust anyone since he was attacked a few months ago. Popular girl Liva saw it happen and did nothing to stop it. Maddy was in an accident that destroyed her sports career. Carter is drowning under the weight of his family’s expectations. Ever wants to keep the game going for as long as they can, at all costs.

When the lines between game and reality start to blend with deadly consequences, it’s a race against time before it’s game over ― forever.

When it comes to the suspense genre, whether it be in a TV-show, book or movie, nothing gets quite more cliché than a cabin in the middle of the woods. As you might expect, this meant I was already in doubt the moment I flipped through the first few pages of Even If We Break to see its five protagonists journeying to that exact setting.

And then it wasn’t so cliché anymore.

See, if there’s one thing YA knows how to do right, it’s in its resounding inclusivity. Even If We Break is no exception as it opens up with our first character, Finn, who is transgender and disabled. We then meet Ever — who is non-binary — and Maddy — who is autistic — along with Carter and Liva.

Nijkamp further flips the trope on its head with a setup that is both unexpected and beautifully intriguing. As the five friends play through the first few acts of their role-playing game, the lines between real life and fantasy become more blurred with each passing page. Chapters are interwoven with intriguing RPG-like excerpts from a mysterious narrator, and the tensions between friends turn from cold to frigid with every choice they make.

Suddenly, their in-game adventures start to reflect reality with uncomfortable similarity. Hidden feelings come to light, characters receive threatening notes from an invisible messenger, and the night takes a turn for the worse. It’s the perfect spark for a wildfire of scares and mystery.

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Only, that’s where most of the thrills come to a screeching halt. Instead, the 200-or-so remaining pages are comprised of what feels like an entirely different story. It’s at this point I realized Even If We Break was struggling to find its true narrative.

Undoubtedly, the novel is an incredible story of persistence, strength and growth. Not only is it a testament to the oft-unrecognized perseverance of disabled and queer youth, but a revelation of the impact negative societal treatment can have on their lives and personal relationships.

In a way, that’s where the problem starts. This type of deep, thoughtful storytelling rarely mixes well with the fast-paced, sometimes thoughtless thriller genre. While Even If We Break contains the ingredients for a suspenseful read, its two narratives clash with each other too often for either to be very succesful.

I found myself struggling to keep from skimming through the second half of the book. Scenes that started with an intense catalyst were interrupted by inner monologues that lasted paragraphs, flashbacks that endured entire chapters and repetitive dialogue. The fact that the whole story takes place over one night and in a limited setting certainly contributed to such slow pacing — the book could’ve easily lost a few dozen pages of filler.

In contrast, Nijkamp’s writing truly shines in the development of her characters. Handling five POVs in one (short) book isn’t easy to accomplish, but the characters in Even If We Break were as fully-realized as they were compelling, even if their individual page-time wasn’t as long as larger novels. Unfortunately, this character development seems to have come at the price of a story worth their depth.

The messages Even If We Break portray are timely, necessary and well-done. But, with how strongly they take center stage throughout the novel, they impede the creation of what could’ve been a twisty, mysterious thriller. Nijkamp is a talented writer regardless, proven in her ability to develop the nuances of character relationships throughout the novel with an expert hand.

If anything, Even If We Break read more like a modern contemporary with some aspects of suspense sprinkled throughout, if only to move the story along in some places. While this may have worked well in a different kind of setting (and with less aggressive marketing), its setup — and conclusion — only lead to disappointment.

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Overshadowed by its own characters

3
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Even If We Break succeeds in shattering the status quo with a wonderfully diverse cast and unique setup, which only makes its subsequent failure to provide thrill all the more disappointing.

When he's not sinking hours behind a book (or his keyboard), you can find Kevin coasting along the Pacific Coast Highway, probably pretending he's in a music video.

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