A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares by Krystal Sutherland – REVIEW
Ever since Esther Solar’s grandfather was cursed by Death, everyone in her family has been doomed to suffer one great fear in their lifetime. Esther’s father is agoraphobic and hasn’t left the basement in six years, her twin brother can t be in the dark without a light on, and her mother is terrified of bad luck.
The Solars are consumed by their fears and, according to the legend of the curse, destined to die from them.
Esther doesn’t know what her great fear is yet (nor does she want to), a feat achieved by avoiding pretty much everything. Elevators, small spaces, and crowds are all off-limits. So are haircuts, spiders, dolls, mirrors and three dozen other phobias she keeps a record of in her semi-definitive list of worst nightmares.
Then Esther is pickpocketed by Jonah Smallwood, an old elementary school classmate. Along with her phone, money and a fruit roll-up she d been saving, Jonah also steals her list of fears. Despite the theft, Esther and Jonah become friends, and he sets a challenge for them: in an effort to break the curse that has crippled her family, they will meet every Sunday of senior year to work their way through the list, facing one terrifying fear at a time, including one that Esther hadn’t counted on: love.
Trigger Warning: self-harm, suicide attempt, domestic violence.
“The worst part was that anxiety didn’t just affect the way you thought, or the way you talked, or the way you were around others. It affected the way your heart beat. The way you breathed. What you ate. How you slept.”
I didn’t know what to expect when starting this book – the blurb suggested it was about mental illness and facing your fears, whilst an online synopsis mentioned Death placing a curse on the featured family, which seemed like a completely different book. It’s actually a combination of both. For me, the Death storyline didn’t work as well as the other thread, and actually lessened the emotional impact of the mental illness aspect of the story. What I absolutely adored about this book was its portrayal of a range of mental illnesses, from social anxiety to depression, agoraphobia to addiction. This is a book that doesn’t shy away from mental illness or attempt to diminish its effects. As someone who suffers from depression, and has had suicidal thoughts in the recent past, I was able to identify with Eugene especially. Krystal’s description of the irrationality of depression and the darkness inside us rang particularly true. It was as though she had articulated my thoughts and helped explain them to the world.
“Love was a trap, a sticky trap of molasses meant to bind two people together. It was a thing that couldn’t be escaped, a weight that people strapped to their own legs before they waded into the water and wondered why they drowned.”
With its exploration of such dark issues, it might seem that this book is rather depressing but that’s definitely not the case. It’s quirky, humorous, and endearing. The characters of Esther, Eugene, Hephzibah, and Jonah are appealing and lovable, and I was quickly invested in them. Jonah especially was the character I was rooting for as he was just so adorable. He had a light that the darkness couldn’t extinguish, and it was his hope that kept the other characters going. As for the humour, the goose fight in chapter twenty-one had me actually snorting out loud with laughter. I definitely want to start using resting goose face in conversation. The book alternated between these laugh-out-loud moments and quieter, more poignant moments that packed an emotional punch.
“They were teenagers, and they were powerless, and until they were adults they had no choice but to let their destinies be bent and swayed by outside forces.”
This is one of those books that I’m so glad I decided to read. The unapologetic portrayal of mental illness was so recognisable and the fears these characters faced definitely resonated with me. I’ve never read a book that described depression and suicidal ideation so well, and I’ll be recommending this book for that alone. If we can keep talking about mental illness, we can lessen the stigma surrounding it. At the end of the book, Krystal recommends reading Adam Silvera’s Tumblr post Happiness Isn’t Just An Outside Thing, explaining his depression and suicidal thoughts. I read it as soon as I finished this book and I identified with his ongoing struggle so much – I would also urge you to read it.
A thought-provoking and hilarious exploration of mental illness.
Remember: “everything you want is on the other side of fear”.
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