Book Review : Fred Venturini - The Escape of Light (2019)
Pre-Order The Escape of Light here (Release Date: October 22)
Teenagers are an interesting contradiction. They all secretly believe to be special, while being simultaneously terrified to stand out. In reality, it’s not mutually exclusive. Fictional teenagers always stand out for the right reasons only. Because they’re gorgeous or athletically gifted. It’s not the case in Fred Venturini’s new novel The Escape of Light. It is the story of a kid who is special in all the right and the wrong ways.
The Escape of Light is the story of Wilder Tate. A high school kid who suffered second and third degree burns over all his body when he was 10 years old. Of course, he’s extremely self-conscious about his appearance, but his talent for basketball makes him a wanted commodity among his peers. Wilder is holding on to a secret that deforms people’s perspective of him, though. A secret way more terrible than the scars on his face.
Obviously, The Escape of Light is a young adult novel, like its excellent predecessor The Heart Does Not Grow Back. The major difference between the two is that this one doesn’t have any supernatural undertones. It features “normal” kids going through “normal” trials and tribulations of adolescence, except that their every day would be the best, most intense memories of your life, like… let’s say the kids in DeGrassi. Except it’s a dark freakin’ DeGrassi with a protagonist unknowingly struggling with PTSD and the psychological aftermath of living with second degree burns on his face. Wilder’s scars are both physical and psychological, so you don’t need atrocious burns to relate.
This novel is a solid introduction to existentialism. Wilder’s life in high school isn’t that hard: he’s made a solid friend on his first day, girls are intrigued by him and he’s become a starter for the basketball team on his first year. But he keeps letting his burns define him. When he’s offered a chance to have them healed through a painful procedure, he doesn’t hesitate and quits basketball for the year. It will also make him look monstrous (Google skin expanders at your own risk) but he doesn’t care because he feels like a monster. The Escape of Light is Wilder’s struggle to gain agency over a tragedy he refuses to confront and move past. It’s a battle between who he is and what he looks like.
Certain readers will find it hard to empathize with Wilder, because you never actually see him and it can feel like he’s complaining about a pretty awesome, life-affirming adolescence at times. The Escape of Light goes pretty deep down the Jungian well of the self and the shadow and empathizing with self-defeating ways will be a hard sell for some. I struggled with it at times, until I understood what the bigger picture was. But Fred Venturini wrote another weird, off-beat novel about a weird, off-beat problem that inhabits young boys’ psyches. That itself is precious.
The Escape of Light is about embracing difference and embracing what makes you “you” for better or worse. That, I think most readers will see in Wilder.