Shallow Graves | Stand-Alone | ISBN 9780062366207 | Katherine Tegen Books, 2016 | 5 out of 5 Points
“Breezy remembers leaving the party: the warm, wet grass under her feet, her cheek still stinging from a slap to her face. But when she wakes up, scared and pulling dirt from her mouth, a year has passed and she can’t explain how. Nor can she explain the man lying at her grave, dead from her touch, or why her heartbeat comes and goes. She doesn’t remember who killed her or why. All she knows is that she’s somehow conscious—and not only that, she’s able to sense who around her is hiding a murderous past.
Haunted by happy memories from her life, Breezy sets out to find answers in the gritty, threatening world to which she now belongs—where killers hide in plain sight, and a sinister cult is hunting for strange creatures like her. What she discovers is at once empowering, redemptive, and dangerous.”
This book will haunt you. I have never before read Young Adult fiction like this and I probably never will again. “Shallow Graves” struck a chord with me and I just can’t shake it off. Sometimes I’m cleaning or I’m reading or I’m just sat looking at funny pictures on the internet and my brain goes: “Hey, remember when you read Shallow Graves? Wasn’t that amazingly sad?” It haunts me. It’s the kind of book that makes you think about things there are no answers to, about life and death and the meaning of it all. It strikes at the core questions humanity has been asking itself for thousands of years. It’s philosophical and beautifully haunting but it’s also gory and violent and scary. It’s really, really awesome and unique… but it might not be for everyone.
UNDEAD GIRLS & ROAD TRIPS
We meet Breezy when she’s already dead, hitchhiking across America, going nowhere really. A few weeks ago she woke up in a shallow grave with dirt in her mouth and a man dead at her feet and she doesn’t know what happened. All she knows is that a year ago she died and was buried where she woke, that she can’t die for real, no matter what she tries and that she can sense when someone else has taken a life. The thing is, you might think “Shallow Graves” is your usual paranormal YA, about an undead girl trying to figure out who killed her or something. But it’s not. It’s about identity and society, about living and dying and killing and about leaving people and dreams behind. It’s different. Very, very different.
The story isn’t told chronologically. Flashbacks to the time when Breezy was alive are woven into her first person narrative and even though they don’t have anything to do with the novel’s plot, they’re the most important part of the story and the chapters I adored the most. Kali Wallace shows you what was taken away from Breezy when she died. Her family, her friends, her life as a normal high school girl. But she also tackles our modern society’s problems. Breezy is Asian American and bisexual, she is considered a slut around school, she rubs a lot of people the wrong way. The thing is, these bittersweet flashbacks might not really have anything to do with the horror thriller plot, but they have all to do with who Breezy is as a person and what she’s leaving behind. They’ll make you sad. That’s the part of the story that haunts me.
In fiction, when people die, the focus is usually on the killer or on the people who got left behind or on the person solving the murder. In “Shallow Graves” the focus is on the victim and the main question the novel seems to be asking is: “What if a dead person could actually see how their death changed the lives of the people around them?” I adored that so much. Kali Wallace asks a lot of philosophical and ethical questions about life and death but she’s never giving you answers. I understand that some people might be annoyed with that but it worked very well for me because sometimes, when someone dies horribly, there are no answers, only questions. A lot of stuff stays unresolved once you’ve turned the last page and for once I was absolutely fine with that. That’s how good “Shallow Graves” is. It’s not about the answers or the “Why” at all, it’s about what’s happening now and how we live life and what it’s worth.
PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS & SOME HELL-RAISING HORROR
That’s why I could actually have done without the urban horror plot. Yes, there’s this storyline where Breezy gets kidnapped by some religious freaks who want to kill all paranormal beings and then she has to escape and make sure they stop hunting paranormal people for good. I liked that storyline alright but I might have just liked the book even better without it. Breezy is lost in the beginning because she’s frozen in time. She doesn’t age anymore, she can’t go back to her old life because she is dead, she’s just travelling from here to there, trying to figure out why she’s even there anymore. That uncertainty mixed with the flashbacks showing us who she was when she was alive and the memories that shaped her into the person she is and the events that led to her death would have been enough for me actually. It is that kind of book. It wouldn’t have needed a big exciting storyline to be compelling at all.
This whole storyline seemed kind of in the way of the actual story, like it was added to give the book some more action and plot it didn’t really need in my opinion. The two things didn’t go together very well. On the one hand we have this dead girl just aimlessly wandering America, trying to make sense of how she died and came back, telling her story through flashbacks. On the other hand we have this horror/thriller type plotline about religious fanatics wanting to kill people with paranormal abilities and undead people. The blunt action of the latter didn’t quite fit the philosophical approach to the former, at least in my opinion, even though both were done very well.
But Kali Wallace’s ability to tell amazing, compelling, engaging stories is what makes “Shallow Graves” such a great read despite this and I’m sure lots of readers will love the more action filled, scary plotline, I just felt like it was somewhat out of place in such a thoughtful, heartbreaking book. Since “Shallow Graves” is also one of the few YA books I’ve read that manages to pull off philosophical without ending up in pretentious hipster land, the contrast seemed even starker. Nevertheless I’d say I loved about 95% of this book and I will surely give it a reread even though it wasn’t an easy read.
HAUNTING, SCARY, VIOLENT BEAUTY
Breezy was such an amazing character. She’s angry and frustrated about what’s happened to her and she’s always asking herself why it had to be her in the first place. She’s not always fair, her thoughts sometimes go to very dark places and she makes mistakes but in the end she’s relatable despite being in a situation none of us will ever find ourselves in. Her rage is very powerful and I felt myself growing angry about everything she’s lost too. What I really loved was that Kali Wallace doesn’t try to teach any lessons here. She doesn’t make Breezy forgive the people who wronged her, she lets her make questionable choices, she lets her be angry. There’s something really powerful in that too. Breezy doesn’t have to be that docile girl who finds peace in forgiving people or some shit. Her rage is valid and she doesn’t always have to do the “right” thing. She gets to do the thing that’s best for her. I loved that.
I grew very fond of many of the side characters as well, mostly Zeke and his brother Jake, two seemingly normal boys who help Breezy out when she most needs it. I wanted to know more about Zeke and Jake, so much more, but in true “Shallow Graves” style I was left longing and… I liked it. It just felt so real, tangible even. Like I was really there and I only got to know what Breezy got to know in the short time she stayed with Zeke and Jake. “Shallow Graves” is full of amazing, interesting personalities who aren’t interesting because they have paranormal abilities, but because they’re just well rounded characters you want to know more about.
I have to warn you though. “Shallow Graves” is scary. It’s proper fucking scary, peeps. It’s a horror novel after all and it’s one of those horror novels that are actually creepy. “Shallow Graves” can be violent and gory at times, it freaked me out quite a few times and I’m not that easy to freak out. But even this aspect of “Shallow Graves” is unique and special. Nothing about the horror is blunt or gory for the shock effect, it ties in quite well with the philosophical aspects of the book actually. Murder, teenagers disappearing, that’s scary business. So of course “Shallow Graves” had to be scary. A lot of the situations Breezy encounters are nightmarish, be it actual brutal violence or the depths of a person’s mind where the dark things are happening. “Shallow Graves” has an amazing dark atmosphere, even a bit of an American Gothic touch to it. It’s like a hot but stormy summer night that way. Beautiful and terrifying at once.
“Shallow Graves” is a fantastic novel about life and loss and society and what’s wrong with it. It hurts to read sometimes, it’s hard to stomach and unsatisfactory in the very best way. When someone dies young, there are always lose ends and there’s always unfinished business. Sometimes questions never get answered and there’s always someone left behind. That’s why Kali Wallace asking but not answering all these questions makes this book the most beautifully haunting YA I have ever read. It’s authentic despite being a paranormal thriller at its core and it draws you in so deep, you can’t shake it off once you’ve finished it. It won’t be for everyone but if you like dark thoughtful stories with some horror to go along with it, you might fall in love with Breezy and her story just like I did.
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