My rating: 3 of 5 stars
It’s difficult for me this book, and it’s one that I’ve put aside for a good few days before writing this review. My feelings are complicated and I hope to understand the complexities and tensions of that response through this review.
So, let’s begin at the beginning. Belzhar appealed to me greatly through the premise: the heroine, Jam Gallahue, has experienced the grievous death of her boyfriend and as a result has been sent to study at a somewhat alternative boarding school. The Wooden Barn is part therapy, part school, and is a place for teens to deal with what has happened in their lives. Whilst at this school, Jam is asked to join a special English class where they will be studying Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’. As part of this class, each inhabitant is given a journal where they need to write their thoughts and it is the journal that ultimately provides Jam with a ticket to ‘Belzhar’ – a place where she can be with her boyfriend once more.
Complicated, yes, but I think this narrative works. I think it works better if you have read some Sylvia Plath, I think you gain some thickness to the allusions in Wolitzer’s text and the great impact of Plath herself, but I do think it works well by itself. There are some moments whereby you do require a healthy suspension of cynicism and I think this is perhaps something missing in the packaging of the book. It’s not a novel of hard and definite edges and don’t expect that upon going in. What it is is a book of softness, of grey, pained edges, and of misty spaces where things can be something both good can be bad.
That’s what Belzhar does well, that graceful smudging of space and reality and of truth and heartbreak, but I think it struggles a little in holding its own voice. In situating the novel so firmly amidst the experience of the Bell Jar and of Plath’s work in general, I think it loses a little bit of its own identity. Whilst that is a gloriously metatextual thing at one point (and something that I rather admire), it’s not something that I feel helps Belzhar. Even that title makes me wince a little bit, the allusions of it, the artfulness of it. It doesn’t feel right for what this book is.
Remember where I said my feelings about it were complicated? I hope that you’re getting that as I circle back and forth in this review and try to figure out where I stand. And that’s something I try to do with every book I review. I try to see a space for it. I try to think of the readers I’d recommend this for and where I’d shelve it in the library. And here’s the thing. I do see a place for this book, I see it in that space where people are reading Plath and want more, in that space where people are discovering their own voices and wanting to define and redefine them. And that’s a good thing. That’s a great thing, really, but it’s a limiting thing in the same breath. There’s a tension in that statement, because it rules out a whole host of other readers for me.
I think that’s the thing about Belzhar. There are such tensions in this book and whilst some of them are tensions that I’m rather spectacularly admiring of, they are tensions nonetheless which require acknowledging and some sort of attempt at understanding. But again, after saying that, I think of that metatextual edge of Belzhar, of that self-referential nature of it, and I think I am rather in admiration of it. I’m not sure I like it though. I’m not sure of that at all.