Though generically a YA, Neverworld Wake should appeal to older readers; it certainly does to this one. It is the book that I’d waited for Marisha Pessl to write, a school-story version of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History with teen-aged characters and set in New England. Pessl has delivered the whole shooting match. Five BFs, graduates of Darrow School in Rhode Island, have a reunion the summer after their first year in college: the wealthy Whitley and her boy friend Cannon, Martha a science geek, Kipling, a Louisiana gay who does Truman Capote imitations (that frankly irritated me), and the narrator Beatrice (alias Bee alias Bumble), whose family operate a tourist restaurant and is our narrator. As in Pessl’s earlier novels, there is a missing character who is a presumed suicide, Bee’s boyfriend Jim, who plunged into a quarry lake at the end of their senior year. The five friends go out in Whitley’s Jaguar convertible, get well lubricated and while returning seem to get into a car smash in the rain with the top down, but find themselves the next morning awaken all wet sitting in the car. As it turns out, they neither survived nor succumbed to the accident. Instead they find themselves caught in a strange limbo between life and death, the “Wake” which gives the book its title. Each morning they awaken in the car to relive the same day. A mysterious old man called the “the Keeper” explains to them that they will continue in that state till they finally vote unanimously for one of them to survive.
Knowing that this scenario of an intermediate state betwixt life and death is the setting of a recent piece of critically celebrated Postmodernist Flim-Flam I’d not touch with barge pole, I’d feared the worst. But received the best; spiritually and morally Pessl offers a most fulfillling exploration of friendship and love. There is also wonderfully wittly dialogue. Just as we fear a cliché, a phrase veers into a freshly minted mot–I loved the sailboats bobbing like feeding unicorns! We find that the limbo our characters inhabit turns out to be spacious in time and space, offering them the chance to explore their pasts at school and to investigate the mystery of what actually happened to Jim and for our narrator Bee to grow into the person she should aspire to be and to confront her own past. Instead of being trapped in purgatorial confinement, we move around a lot, socially, temporally, and geographically, including visits to Greece and Japan. But always under the constraint of the time limit of the Wake, that moves steadily shorter till we reach resolution. For some readers, time travel into the past will seem like science fiction (Martha is a devote of an obscure book called The Bend), but from a spiritual perspective it serves as a device to allow contemporary readers to experience the mystery that time is really illusory and simultaneous. Except for the corn-pone Kip (and I eventually got to tolerate him), I found all the characters very appealing, especially Bee our narrator. The conclusion, both what happened to Jim and to the friends caught in the Wake, was tragic, sad, serious, and yet perfectly satisfying. I love this book. It explores devotion, betrayal, sacrifice, and the journey inward of spiritual growth.