Akemi Dawn Bowman’s skill with words was proven to me when I picked up her debut, Starfish, a novel about identity, constriction of one’s self, and the liberation that comes with discovery. Delving into a similarly heavy topic in her sophomore book, I knew that the journey would be engulfing, heady, and all together wonderful, because Bowman is a gifted writer, as evidenced by her success at not just one, but now two books.
Published: 11 September 2018
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Category: Contemporary/LGBT+/Young Adult
Rumi Seto spends a lot of time worrying she doesn’t have the answers to everything. What to eat, where to go, whom to love. But there is one thing she is absolutely sure of—she wants to spend the rest of her life writing music with her younger sister, Lea.
Then Lea dies in a car accident, and her mother sends her away to live with her aunt in Hawaii while she deals with her own grief. Now thousands of miles from home, Rumi struggles to navigate the loss of her sister, being abandoned by her mother, and the absence of music in her life. With the help of the “boys next door”—a teenage surfer named Kai, who smiles too much and doesn’t take anything seriously, and an eighty-year-old named George Watanabe, who succumbed to his own grief years ago—Rumi attempts to find her way back to her music, to write the song she and Lea never had the chance to finish.
Rating: 5 Stars
Rep: Multi-racial MC (Japanese, Hawaiian, white) who is also questioning/aromantic asexual; diverse side characters (Hawaiian, Japanese, Korean, Samoan, Filipino, Black)
Rumi, the main character, is a layered character that the reader follows through her story, one of grief, recovery, music, and a lot more. There’s questions regarding identity (sexual, romantic), friendship, conceptions of mental illness, etc. Rumi’s personal interaction with all of these facets is complicated. She’s hard to like at times, some of which is just part of growing up, some of which is part of learning to live with her grief.
This portrayal of a main character that isn’t 100% likable is great because it shows that you don’t have to always be on the game perfect. Rumi has flaws and that’s okay. She doesn’t have all the answers and she knows that, questions that frequently throughout the book, and settles with that being okay. It’s okay to change your mind, to question. Who you are today doesn’t have to be who you are forever.
One of Rumi’s friends from back home, Alice, was a character who stood as a good antithesis for this, when she and Rumi would talk about what they were going to do after their senior year, the school year that Rumi will enter after her summer in Hawaii. Rumi wanted to wait for Lea; they had plans together and waiting, for Rumi, was fine, but Alice made comments about how waiting was wasting time, how Rumi would be so much older than everyone else by that time.
“Everyone wants to go to college. It’s basically like high school but with less homework and more freedom.”
No, Alice, they really don’t. This is a pressure driven fantasy that’s pressed on kids when there are so many avenues open to them that don’t involve school, that don’t involve going away, getting in debt, or whatever. You don’t always have to follow The Plan.
Alice represents everyone who pushes Rumi, and people like her, to be “ready” ahead of time, to fall in with the mainstream, either before they’re ready or because it’s the “right” thing to do at all. School or romance, there doesn’t have to be a right time or even A time if you don’t want there to be.
Bowman’s writing also had a technique that I liked where she make music take on layers beyond what your ears would hear and make it something that your body would feel or your tongue could taste, something your nose could smell. Guitar, piano, violin, they all taste different not just because they’re different instruments but also based on how the piece being played sounds (sad, soulful, etc.). The dimensions Akemi gave music went beyond sound. It encompassed multiple senses and enveloped the reader, deepening the experience that Rumi is having and that we shared at the same time.
It’s piano music today. It sounds like salt and whispers and abandoned lighthouses.
Grief is, as I mentioned, a major topic in this book. Rumi has to learn how to cope with the loss of her sister after a car crash she, her sister Lea, and their mother were in. There’s also the loss of her mother, who sent Rumi to live with her aunt in Hawaii while she dealt with her grief in her own way. Rumi’s sense of loss and abandonment and grief is compounded by this and makes processing a lot of things even more difficult because there are no answers. There aren’t always, but when you have a mother who you feel could have provided them and feel abandoned by her, that makes things all the worse.
The potential of life is terrifying. There’s the possibility of depth or of shallowness. You could have forever or today. The not knowing can be paralyzing. Rumi facing that, ostensibly alone in the beginning of Summer Bird Blue, is horrifying. Events like Death do that, make life horrible, even more so by splitting life into Before and After. It’s like there’s no between, no time for grieving before you enter the After. That’s part of what makes it so difficult and what, I think, made Rumi’s journey so hard.
There’s another facet to Rumi and her mother’s relationship that comes up near the end that’s briefly touched on that is important to note. Mental illness can be hard to understand at the best of times & Rumi’s position is not one of those times. If she weren’t in the position of dealing with her own survivor’s guilt, feeling of abandonment, and so forth, maybe she wouldn’t have made some of the statements she did in a conversation she had with Mr. Watanabe after finding out where her mother had been all summer. Rumi says some things that make it sound like mental illness isn’t the same as physical. Mr. Watanabe’s attitude, never taking guff from her, points out that, really, it can be and while her anger, her grief, is justified, the whole thing is maybe just too complicated to have black and white, Rumi & Mom.
There are so many layers to this book, whether it be grief, survivor’s guilt, recovery, friendship, identity, music, dreams, or something else that each reader finds for themselves. Akemi Dawn Bowman manages, with each new book, finds ways to convey emotions that touch readers in meaningful ways and let us know that we are not alone, that there are ways to be seen and heard. Summer Bird Blue, for everything it says, takes flight into hearts with a soothing ukulele tune and stays long after the last page.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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