This book is a sort of retelling of Cinderella with an alternate-universe ancient-Japan setting. There were things I liked about this story (for example, the setting), but in the end there was just too much time spent on feelings and not enough on actual character development for me to really like this book on the whole.
Suzume is the narrator and main character of the story. When the book opens, she is living with her parents and her cousin/best friend in the countryside. She has a wonderful and happy life, so we know that isn’t going to last. This is, after all, YA! And, sure enough, while Suzume’s mother is away visiting a relative, soldiers arrive, tell Suzume’s father that he has been convicted of treason, and proceed to kill both Suzume’s father and her cousin. Suzume manages to hide.
When Suzume’s mother returns to the devastation, she and Suzume take refuge with one of Suzume’s father’s best friends – who, it turns out, has loved Suzume’s mother these many years. So it’s no big surprise when they get married a short while later.
Early in the story, Suzume finds out that she is a shadow weaver – a sort of magical person who can bend light and create illusions. As Suzume struggles to adjust to all the changes in her life, she uses her shadow weaving to project the person she thinks people want to see, keeping her true self hidden. But, as ended up being par for the course for this book, Suzume only ever learns enough about this skill to benefit herself for her own selfish reasons.
I just don’t know what to say about this book. Basically, Suzume drove me crazy. The entire book is all about her feelings, and her feelings are frequently irrational and selfish, not to mention annoying. She is obsessed with her own personal grief and guilt, which makes her completely incapable of understanding or caring about anyone else around her. All of her actions are completely motivated by what she wants to do for herself. She claims that it is for the memory of her father or cousin, or because of love, but it’s obvious that it’s really all just about her.
And that would be fine, except at the end of the book, I really wasn’t convinced that Suzume wasn’t just as selfish and self-centered as she was to begin with. I would have been willing to overlook some of the ludicrous plot “twists” if I had felt like Suzume grew as a person, but I just don’t think she did.
There was a lot of potential here – the love story could have been fantastic. There was an opportunity for a great friendship. There could have been a really interesting look at Suzume’s relationship with her mother. But instead, all of the relationships in this book are muddled and inconsistent. The characters don’t react naturally, and it makes the whole story hard to get into. And since Suzume herself hates pretty much everyone, it’s hard to get an even kind of objective picture of the people in her life.
(Like the one servant who initially helps her with the shadow-weaving… turns out he totally lied to her?? But that is never addressed? Was this guy a horrible dude? Confused? Because of the “twist” at the end, suddenly his entire character made NO SENSE.)
Then, there is the fact that Suzume totally lies to the guy who is in love with her. Suzume thinks she has done this terrible thing, and it haunts her every waking moment and we have to listen to her whine about how hard her life is because she did this thing (which was an ACCIDENT by the way) and oh woe is me my punishment is to live even though I wish I could die, I guess I’ll go self-harm again (more on that later). Point is, she never tells this guy that she supposedly loves more than anything in the world the truth about what she has done, or the real reason that she’s distressed. When she finally “confesses” her “true” life story to him, she omits her big mistake, completely lying to him about the real reasons that she’s depressed and upset. In the end, it turns out that the terrible thing Suzume thought she had done never really happened…so she just never tells him at all. It felt like their whole relationship was built on lies because Suzume was never open or honest with him, ever. And the way Marriott wrote the story, it came across as a perfectly acceptable way to have a serious, life-long relationship with someone. Huh!?
Despite all this, I would have still given this book 3 stars except for two things. The first is that literally AS SOON as Suzume and her friendboy confess their love to each other, they have sex. I mean IMMEDIATELY. That really disturbed me. Sex in YA on the whole disturbs me, because I hate (HATE) the way that it’s belittled and normalized, like hey, no big deal! Everyone is doing it! Except it IS a big deal – sex is so, so much more than a physical act, and to pretend like that’s all it is, is to completely devalue it. Basically, I feel like our culture lies to kids about sex by pretending like ti isn’t that important, and that angers me. Anyway.
The second thing, even bigger, is that fairly early in the story Suzume begins cutting herself as a way to deal with her grief.
The morning after I had been informed of their engagement, I had an accident. A silly, clumsy accident, nothing more. As I peeled fruit at breakfast, my knife slipped, opening a long, shallow cut on my palm.
Blood welled up as I stared in shock, and pain sang through my hand. Then there was a rush of…something. Something like happiness, or peace, or relief. It made me dizzy.
After that initial accident, Suzume begins cutting in earnest whenever she is feeling depressed or frustrated.
I held the pin between my teeth as I rolled up my sleeve and selected an area at the side of my elbow, then I touched the now warm pin to the skin and pushed it in.
I hissed, tears springing to my eyes as I dragged the sharp end across my arm. Tiny beads of bright red welled up against the white skin. Then the most glorious sense of relief filled me; I let out a long, ecstatic sigh. I had done it. It had worked.
This must be why Moon Priests starve and beat themselves, I thought. The pain did something to you: set you free. Gave you control. I had caused the pain. I had chosen the spot, and I had applied the pin. The pain was mine, and no one could take it from me. It made me feel…real.
W H A T ?!?!?!?!
Throughout the entire story, while a couple of people tell Suzume she should stop self-harming, she never really gives it up (sometimes she stops for a while, but then something happens and she goes back to it… almost like it’s an addiction…), and it is consistently described as a way that she finds relief, “happiness,” and escape. This was disturbing on SO MANY LEVELS. In some places, it really felt like Marriott was telling her YA readers that self-harm is a valid way to deal with depression and grief. I mean, seriously. Read that example above. Does that sound like Marriott is describing something that is incredibly self-destructive?? What. Even.
At the end of the day, this turned out to be a classic example of everything I hate about YA. It was depressing and pointless. The plot was sloppy. The character development was nonexistent. It made casual sex and self-harm sound like acceptable practices. The narrator was completely self-absorbed and never changed. All of Suzume’s “good” decisions were made because the situation changed so that doing the “good” thing was the new thing that would actually benefit her the most – not because she understood that it was a good decision, or that her original choice was bad.
2/5 because the setting was interesting and unique, but definitely not recommended.
PS this book gets awesome reviews on Goodreads – almost 4 stars as an average – so maybe it’s just me… again…