“When I was fourteen my family had a nervous breakdown…”
Matt Cook ~ Life on Other Planets
It is 1997. To himself, Benjamin Carter is a thing drifted somehow out of its orbit. With the news that Great Aunt Pearl is dead, his summer is looking like yet another non-starter. There’s his summons to the clearance of her ramshackle house. His dad’s awkward pep talks. A toxic cocktail of over-zealous aunts and uncles. And then there’s the Church of the Holy Heavens – the space cult that’s been wooing Pearl for all she’s worth.
Families can be messy, complicated and frustrating. Our teenage years in particular may conjure up painful memories of a time spent struggling to fit in, conform to parental expectations, resist peer pressure and stay true to ourselves.
Life on Other Planets examines one teenage boy’s view of the world – and his family – when struggling with stress. It’s very different to anything I’ve read, but was highly entertaining. The writing is superb, with vivid descriptions that perfectly capture the scene. Reading about the house feels claustrophobic, isolating and intimidating. We can almost taste the cloying scent of death and decay.
Characters are eclectic, mismatched and lacking. Where the house receives extensive coverage, the family seem forgotten. Perhaps this is because to Ben, they are who they are; to us readers, more information would have been helpful in forming a clearer picture of the summer and everyone involved.
But what of Pearl? Her story is equally as muddled, shown only through the letters she receives from the Church of the Holy Heavens. It’s clearly a con, but with her money draining away – will the family find out that she leaves them nothing in the will?
We know so little about Pearl, that our brains consider multiple scenarios. Yet it turns out that none is correct. As we are thrust deeper into Ben’s mind, we become as confused and feral as he; searching for answers we are no clearer and the frustration kicks in. At first we think that it is the toll of the work that is causing the family to change, yet when we discover the true reason, everything seems simple and less fantastical… but perhaps we are wrong?
The ending, when it comes, seems abrupt. In one instance – privy as we are to Pearl’s correspondence – we know more than Ben and his family; on the other hand we are left to decide what we believe has taken place. Is it a flight of fantasy? Or something deeper, darker and more mysterious? If it’s the latter, donations clearly aren’t as necessary as Alan made Pearl out to believe. If the former, then that summer has potentially scarred Ben for life, in more ways than one. Either way, that summer will forever be etched into Ben’s family’s minds.
Cook has taken something as simple as decluttering a house and turned it into a unique story that will continue to haunt your dreams, long after you’ve read it.
I was provided with a copy by the author and InstaBook Tours. All opinions my own.
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