Jul 25, 2012

Dying to Know You by Aidan Chambers

Dying to Know You by Aidan Chambers

The unnamed narrator of Dying to Know You is an writer of young adult literature in his seventies who has been unable to write ever since his wife’s recent passing. One day, eighteen-year-old Karl knocks on his door and asks him for a favour: his girlfriend, Fiorella, has asked him to write her a series of letters answering some deeply personal questions so they can get to know each other better. But Karl hasn’t told her he’s dyslexic, and he’s very worried that if she finds out, she’ll assume he’s stupid and break up with him. So he decides to enlist the assistance of Fiorella’s favourite writer in making sure the letters are written in “full-dress English”. The writer agrees to help Karl, and this marks the beginning of an unexpected friendship between the two that has a deep impact on both of their lives.

If this description makes you wonder whether Dying to Know You is a “guy decides that misleading a girl he supposedly loves for the sake of romance is seriously awesome” type story, please don’t worry. It doesn’t take long at all for Karl’s scheme to have the expected consequences, and in any case his relationship with Fiorella isn’t really what’s at the heart of this novel. Dying to Know You is a gentle, thoughtful and very touching story that deals with grief and depression, with intimacy and vulnerability, with what drives creativity and our engagement with the arts, with adolescence and old age.

I could write at length about the novel from any of these angles, but what spoke to me the most was the fact that Dying to Know You is, as the title hints, such a perfect account of the process of wanting to really get to know someone: of desiring closeness and striving to achieve it, of wondering if you’re wanted in return, of getting scared and doubtful and hurt along the way. I don’t often come across detailed descriptions of this process that aren’t romantic in nature – the cultural myths we maintain about friendship seem to tell us that it’s either not important enough to merit this kind of attention; or that, even if it is, it’s supposed to be easy and intuitive and not come with its own set of challenges and complexities, which can be every bit as tricky and scary as those involved in romantic love.

Needless to say, this is not a story that buys into either of those myths. Chambers’ descriptions of how people negotiate closeness are sensitive and perceptive and perfect in their simplicity. For example:
I was beginning to know him. That movement meant Enough of this.
“Well, anyway,” I said, “I’m no expert, but it seems to me you’re a pretty good fisherman.”
“Except when I’m catching trees instead of fish.”
Again we laughed.
“How did you get to be so good?” I said. “Did you teach yourself?”
He looked away.
“No… My dad.”
There was a sudden brittle silence.
Why? Something to do with his father, obviously, but what?
Everything about him at that moment warned me not to ask.
I got out the flask of coffee. Asked him if he’d like some. He said nothing. Head still turned away. No movement.
I filled two mugs and held one out to him.
He took it without looking at me and drank.
Nothing more was said.
When he’d finished his coffee, he stood up and gathered his gear, still avoiding me.
“Thanks,” he said and paused on the brink of saying something more, but all that came out was, “See you later.”
And he strode off into the river
A raw nerve touched and no recovery.
As Karl and the writer spend more time together, there are several scenes like this – scenes that speak volumes about what it’s like to pay close attention to another human being, to wonder about them, to be truly interested, to desire their attention but also to want to make sure you don’t push them beyond their comfort levels. Dying to Know You perfectly captures how wonderful and important this process is, but also how terrifying and vulnerable, and how much deliberation it takes to find a communication model that works equally well for all the people involved. Lately I’ve been really interested in reading stories that deal with this exact process, so Dying To Know You was a serendipitous find. If you have any other suggestions, I’d absolutely love to hear them.

As for this book, why don’t I let Patrick Ness persuade you instead? Between this and Postcards From No Man’s Land, I’m starting to suspect that Aidan Chambers is a genius. I absolutely need to make time to dive into his back catalogue.

Memorable bits:
It seems to me there are two kinds of people. There are those who prefer everything to be spelt out, clear and direct, nothing left to doubt. The other are people who prefer to read between the line, who don’t want every i to be dotted, every t to be crossed. They need room to decide for themselves what you mean.
I have to confess that by nature I belong to the speller-outs. But I was learning that Karl belonged to the understaters, the ambiguists.
Sometimes, the speller-outs need to restrain themselves, and sometimes the understaters need to be given a hint, a clue to help them.
They read it too: My Favourite Books, Waking Brain Cells, So Many Books, So Little Time


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  1. Dear Ana,

    Thank you for your thorough, and beautifully written reviews. I have "met" lots of new authors, thanks to your blog. I am a real Chambers fan. According to your last review I would certainly advise you to try Chambers' This is all: the pillow book of Cordelia Kenn. It describes al the beauty and all the problems and miscommunications of falling in love and having a real relationship for the first time, and of growing up. It moved me deeply, and I hope you will enjoy it.

  2. I think a lot of people often forget what it's like to have these kinds of feelings and stumblings with friends, and assume that it's only the relationships between lovers that leave people harboring intense feelings of acceptance or rejection. It is not so, and I know that for a fact. This was a brilliant review of a book that I am going to have to buy soon. It sounds amazing and thoughtful in a way that I have been looking for for a long time. That excerpt that you posted was brilliant as well!

  3. I just read this too! I loved it! (I haven't gotten around to reviewing it yet; I'm way behind). I've also recently read his short story collection The Kissing Game, but I don't think I understood it fully, and wasn't impressed with it.

    I'm persuaded Chambers is a genius. I've been going through his novels in The Dance Sequence in order. I've arrived at The Toll Bridge, which I liked. Well, I actually miss only Postcards from No Man's Land, because I have already read This Is All a couple of years ago.

    My favourite Chambers books so far are Dance On My Grave, Now I Know, and This Is All. I think you'd love This Is All, but reading is a bit of a committment - it's about 800 pages.

  4. That kind of reminds me of Cyrano de Bergerac. It sounds really good to me!

  5. Sounds like a good book on a developing relationship between an unlikely and unusual duo, both helping each other in the process. I've seen this theme in other recent books and it is a good one.

  6. Maaike: Thank you so much for the kind words! And also for the recommendation - it sounds like an absolutely beautiful book.

    Zibilee: Yes, yes, exactly! And isn't that excerpt lovely? So simple, but so perceptive.

    Alessandra: Chambers has definitely proved he's worth the commitment, though! Thanks for the recommendations, and looking forward to your review of this one.

    Kathy: Yes! I'm betting the allusion was intentional.

    Harvee Lau: If you wanted to tell me about those books, it would be much appreciated :D Somehow I haven't had much look finding stories that deal with this kind of thing.

  7. This sounds wonderful. From the moment of reading the premise I was interested, because of the intergenerational theme. But then, given how you mention this book discusses friendship and the feelings of wanting to get close to someone.. I'm intrigued. Guess I had better find a copy of this soon. Also, Patrick Ness liked it!

    Random, but I was also pleased to see a comment by Maaike. And a little sad she hasn't blogged in a while. It's always nice to "meet" a fellow Dutch book lover who has excellent taste in blogs :)

  8. I love love looove Aidan Chambers! I fell in love a few years when I read Cordelia Kent (which I see a few commenters have already recommended), and have since read three other books of his, which I also really enjoyed. I've been really wanting to read this one since it first came out, but have been holding back in the attempts at taming my own TBR pile.

    I love this review by the way. :) Being someone who's kind of socially awkward and has a hard time making new/keeping old connections with people, I think this subject matter would speak to me much in the same way it spoke to you.

  9. Oooh, this is the same person that wrote Postcards From No Man's Land! I've been wanting to read that one forever...I actually HAVE a copy. Just need to read it. This one sounds very John Green-ish in a way. Sounds like something I'd really love...hmm...*hunts down a copy*

  10. This sounds like an awesome story, and I haven't heard of it or the author before, so thank you, Ana!

  11. Oh I just the love the setting of the book and your review is making me want it more.

  12. Iris: I hope you manage to find it! And your last comment made me smile :D

    Michelle: Yes, exactly. Books like this make me feel a little bit less awkward and alone. and I really need to read more Chambers sooner rather than later.

    Chris: Do read Postcards From No Man's Land asap! I really think you'll love it. I can see how my description made you think of John Green, but the tone is actually very different. If books were TV, John Green's would be Gilmore Girls and this would be My So-Called Life. Probably this analogy makes no sense outside my head :P

    Tasha: You're welcome! He doesn't seem to get much attention in blogland, which makes me a little sad.

    Alpa: Hope you enjoy it if you decide to pick it up :)

  13. Thank you for a fine introduction to this author. I am adding this to my to be read list at the library.

  14. I definitely don't need Patrick Ness to convince me, you already did, my dear! Convinced me completely! Honestly, this book sounds beyond wonderful.

    (Of course, I will go see what Patrick Ness has to say anyway, as I'm nearly convinced he can say no wrong.)

  15. Okay, I'm adding this to my TBR right now. It sounds fantastic. Thanks, as always, for writing such an insightful review!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.