Keri Pedersen-Doherty’s anxiety causes her to always anticipate the worst-case scenario. She tries to manage her anxiety by always having a plan; she knows what she will do if she breaks her arm, if there’s an earthquake—even if her parents die. Some people may call it morbid. Keri calls it being prepared.
But then comes something she isn’t prepared for—something awful—and Keri’s world is turned upside-down.
The Shattering begins two weeks after Keri’s brother unexpectedly and violently kills himself. It follows her, her former best friend Janna, and Janna’s friend Sione, both of whom have also lost older brothers to suicide. The three unlikely friends are joined both by their tragedy and, as Sione presents his theory that their brothers’ deaths were actually murders, by their determination to find and stop the killers. Through their investigations, they realize that Janna’s new boyfriend, Takeshi, is likely the next victim, and they fight frantically to save him before it’s too late.
The Shattering is a fantastic, gripping novel that manages to deal with mental illness, learning disabilities, racism, colonialism, cultural appropriation, class issues, sexuality, interracial relationships, sex positivity, and suicide without once coming across as a preachy after-school special.
Keri’s anxiety, as we see it in the book, is very mild. While she narrates her past preparations for various possible disasters, we don’t see her affected by her anxiety throughout the course of the book. Instead, she seems pragmatic and practical, coming up with straightforward, well-thought-out plans to save Takeshi and avenge her brother.
Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the three protagonists, but Keri’s narration is the only one told in the first person. For this reason, I was hoping to gain more of an insight into her anxiety, to see her in its paralyzing grip and watch her grapple with it. As someone with anxiety, it’s rare to see the condition portrayed in a way that’s respectful and realistic, and I have no doubt that if any author could do that, it’s Karen Healey.
In a guest post, Healey revealed that her inspiration for the novel was her own anxiety; while she sees herself as more similar in personality to Janna and Sione, Keri’s anxiety is directly modeled on Healey’s.
Disappointingly (for me, at least), Keri’s anxiety seems more of a framing device than anything else; the novel begins with her description of her brother’s suicide and how it affected her sense of self in regards to her need to be prepared, but this description is told in flashback. In a postscript that takes place a year after the action of the novel, Keri briefly summarizes the depression that gripped her after the events of the book, and devotes exactly one paragraph to a discussion of her treatment.
Let me make it clear that I’m not complaining. When I finished reading The Shattering for the first time, I raved about it to everyone I knew. I’m planning on reviewing it for my own feminist blog (as it addresses many issues I write about there). I was even thinking of doing a giveaway to promote the post, but decided I’d rather keep my copy of the novel to re-read or lend to friends.
However, since I went into the book knowing I was reviewing it to look at the protagonist’s anxiety, I expected that that anxiety would have a stronger influence on her character and the plot; it’s actually fairly peripheral. My concern with this fact is that it would be easy to dismiss Keri’s concerns as her simply “worrying too much” or needing to “lighten up”—admonitions that anyone with anxiety will recognize as dismissive and hurtful. By relegating Keri’s mental illness to the background, Healey potentially minimizes the overwhelming effects that anxiety can have on a sufferer.
However, one of Healey’s strengths as a writer lies in her ability to include diversity without highlighting it in a way that makes it feel Other. In The Shattering, each character’s difference is an integral part of who he or she is, but is never presented as the singular defining trait of the character.
Keri fully accepts her anxiety and over-preparing as part of who she is. While she knows it’s something that others will mock if she reveals it, she doesn’t beat herself up over it or try to change herself.
Furthermore, Sione knows that he doesn’t display the traditionally masculine traits that his brother did, and that his interests in dressing well and reading books cause other Samoan people to think that he’s denying his culture and trying to be white. While this fact bothers him and causes conflicts with other characters, he seems to be, as a person, on a road to accepting himself as he is.
In an even more subtle example of disability presented in the novel, Janna’s (undiagnosed) learning disability has caused her difficulty in school, and she’s self-conscious about being perceived as stupid. However, her musical talent, overall confidence, and general love of life define her personality much more strongly than her disability does.
Overall, I highly recommend the book. It may not contain as thorough a portrayal of anxiety as I’d hoped for, but its representations of other kinds of diversity more than make up for that.