You may have noticed that it has taken me a while to bring you this first review. It is true, I have dragged my heels somewhat, and for a number of reasons. Firstly, I genuinely don't want to offend or upset anyone, and there are many lovely people who I respect who lovelovelove Karen Kingsbury novels. To you all, I am sorry. I do not respect or view you any differently despite my difference in opinion. Secondly, from a journalistic standpoint, I don't like writing biased review(which meant a very short-lived dabble in beauty and fashion writing, and the dismay of some people). I have been trying to come up with a balanced viewpoint. This has taken some time. I had, it has to be said, already lumped Kingsbury with a growing number of rather drivel-ly, sappy, emotional Christian authors who are more concerned with squeezing a tear out of their reader than offering a genuine plot... Yes! I was very prejudiced! I apologise.
Well, I'll just dive in then, shall I? I feel there is a slightly false note in the caution against judging a book by it's cover, because while it often turns out that a well-designed and aesthetically pleasing front cover can be hiding a rotter of a book, you don't often find a terrible front cover concealing a real gem of a novel. So, based on this highly subjective rule-of-thumb, the cover of 'Unlocked' does not bode well.
Apart from the sickly sweet image of beautiful young adults staring into the sky on the front, there was not much to tell you about its content. On the back cover, instead of a plot summary, teaser or quote, we are graced with a full-page photo of the author. She has charming laugh lines around her eyes, her smile is relaxed yet joyful, and she has thrown on a casual white linen shirt. Good for her! There are no mentions of the contents to be found ANYWHERE, but instead pages and pages of readers quotes about Kingsbury's pure genius, pious and nauseating dedications to everyone in her family one by one, a foreword, an introduction, and then finally, a prologue. The only clue is in the tantalizing subtitle: 'They looked for a miracle and found it in a song'...
Because glancing at this book will not help you unlock any of its contents, I'll summarise it for you. Holden is a 17 year old boy with Autism. He is non-verbal, makes no eye contact nor allows physical touch. He's pretty much down the extreme end of the spectrum, but he is able to attend high school. His mother, Tracy, is a long-suffering, very patient woman who has an amazing faith in God, and an absent husband Dan who does some sort of extreme fishing up north somewhere. There is a small cast of high school students, including Ella, a kind girl who takes pity on Holden, only to find out that she and Holden were best of friends when they were 2, Michael, a boy who suffers from bullying and plays the flute, and Jake the obnoxious bully/representative of evil in the world. Also making an appearance are Randy & Suzanne, Ella's parents and long-lost friends of Tracy and Dans, who are successful, rich and miserable. You can already tell that whatever happens to Holden is going to have an impact on a large amount of people.
I think this was a tricky topic for Kingsbury to take on, and not necessarily a popular one, unless of course she could guarantee a sob out of her audience, so she worked with what she was good at. It's always admirable to know one's own strengths, isn't it? But as a person who didn't know anyone with autism(except for the one mother she met once who had a son with autism; this was her starting point for Unlocked), she took the easy, outsider road, and avoided the really difficult truths that could have made for a moving and genuinely heart-rending story.
As a mother of kids with autism(and no, I don't yet know any teenagers with it, so my knowledge is not complete), I found Holden's mother Tracy a little frustrating. While she mourns the 'loss' of her son from such a young age, and struggles to watch other young children interact normally with their parents, she is an amazingly patient, virtuous woman, who doesn't really question God's hand in all of this, and never yells at her son or storms off for a private swear-session nor drive round the block, nor does she feel the need to throw things or shake her unresponsive child by the shoulders. I feel like I should admire her a whole lot for this, and yet because I can't really believe in her character, I don't. Let us just say that she is a better mother than myself. She wishes her son were different, but doesn't find it hard to love him unconditionally. A strong woman indeed.
Holden himself is a bit of an enigma. We start off viewing him from another person's perspective, but Kingsbury is keen to show what he is feeling and thinking in his silent world. It turns out that all his very stereotypical spinning, flapping, rocking and facial tics are all outward gestures of an incredibly spiritual person. Internally, he is constantly praying and conversing with God. His internal voice is childlike, as a three-year-olds would be, and his love for all the rest of fellow man is infinite. He really just wants us all to be happy and get along. While this is a lovely idea for what a nonverbal person may be thinking, I am a bit hesitant, again, to believe in his character. Does he never question anything? Wish to understand people better? Feel hurt, confused, alone or angry? Because as an outsider who watches her own(albeit very verbal) children I witness a whole lot of confusion, anger, fear and pain. He is indeed blessed to have 'frozen' at the age of three with a perfect child's grasp of love and faith in God. I found it hard to sympathise with him or even like him, if truth be told. I know it is probably more telling about my own character that when faced with a perfect human who has nothing but love in his sweet gentle heart I feel more cynicism than respect. Sigh.
I really think if you would like to read this book yourself, you should. I really really can't review this book properly, formally or anything. I struggled with the characters, and I desperately wished that Kingsbury had tackled some of the more difficult subjects in a more appealing way. Holden's father, Dan, is off fishing for most of the book, so instead of looking too deeply into a marriage that is surely suffering from grief among other hurts, his physical absence is the easy way to explain the disconnect between Tracy and Dan. It would have been a lot more gritty and difficult if he had really been there, yet spiritually and emotionally detached from his family. It would have been harder and more heart-breaking to read if Holden's inner child had been struggling to understand, felt locked or trapped, or internally crying out to those around him. If Ella, Holdens rather saintly friend, had really struggled sometimes to want to be with him, found it hard because he didn't bathe often or felt frustrated or rejected when he refused to acknowledge her presence yet again, Unlocked might have told a truer, more painful story.
One last character-assassination: for a book that is full of both Christian and non-christan people searching for truth and reliving past hurts, Jake the bully is a rather one-sided fellow. He's just mean. Kingsbury has no sympathy for him at all, there is no internal monologue as with every other character, and it appears as if he has no painful past or untold secrets to excuse or even explain his behaviour. I wish I had a glimpse into what made Jake so uncomfortable around different people, some sympathy for what made him so angry and vicious. But no, apparently he's just mean.
I won't spoil it for you by telling about a rather huge(only!) plot-twist, but let us just say that I was uncomfortable, angry even, about the sacrifice of one of the characters, which of course ends for the best when thousands of students turn back to God. Life really isn't like that, and I struggle with 'justifying' anyone's untimely death, even for the purpose of moral salvation. Again, let us hope this is more telling about my own shallow character than anything else!
Karen Kingsbury has an amazing belief that all people, everywhere, have experienced God or similar at some time in their lives, and are constantly questioning the meaning of life, internally crying out to a greater being. I'm sure churches would be a lot more full if everyone was seeking faith like this! Her writing is flawed and sickly-sweet, her characters are naively perfect and her plot resembles a Disney movie more than I'd like. Being a person who often laments the glass half-empty, I get easily frustrated with glossy, happy endings. In my experience, even without children on the spectrum, Life just isn't like that. Faith in God is hardly ever easy, and anyone who tells you it is is trying to sell you something.
Or maybe it's just me.