I really wanted to love this middle-grade novel about twelve year old Caroline, set on Water Island and St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. And while I thought it was quite good in many ways, and touched on many important themes and subjects, in the end, I couldn’t really connect with it.
The plot revolves around Caroline, a young girl whose mother left her and her father a year before. She’s heartbroken and confused over her mother’s sudden and unexplained departure. On top of that, she’s lonely at school, until a new girl, Kalinda, arrives from Barbados. She and Kalinda become friends, and soon Caroline realizes that she’s also falling in love with Kalinda. There’s also an element of magic to the story–Caroline and Kalinda both see spirits, ghosts and visions that no one else can see.
I loved the depth to Caroline’s emotions in this book. She’s grieving for her mother and struggles with feeling alone, worthless, unlovable. All of her emotions felt authentic to a twelve year old’s experience, and also very raw. Callender didn’t shy away from the intense sadness, loss, and confusion that children experience. I also loved the setting, and the richness of the world that Callender wove–the boat that Caroline takes every day to school, the ways that tourism has shaped the town, the descriptions of her classroom.
But despite the depth of Caroline’s character, I felt there was just too much going on in this novel, so in the end, none of the storylines felt full or satisfying. Caroline is searching for her mother, dealing with bullying at school, experiencing her first crush. In many ways, all of these stories felt disconnected, like they were happening side by side, rather than all tangled up. It was like the book was spread too thinly.
Then there was this magical element–Caroline’s ability to see ghosts and spirits. I generally love stories that incorporate some kind of magic into the real world. But in this case, while I liked the magic itself, it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the story at all. It wasn’t never explained, and that was okay with me, but I also couldn’t figure out what purpose it was serving, what it was adding to the story. It felt extra, not central, and that, for me, was distracting.
It’s quite possible that this was a case of a middle grade novel just not working for me as an adult. It was beautifully written, and I loved Caroline’s character–she was strong and thoughtful and very much her own person, but also full of doubt and confusion. The things that bothered me about the book might not bother a younger reader at all. What felt disjointed to me might feel just right for an eleven or thirteen year old reading this book. There’s definitely a lot here, and I’d read more by this author for sure, even though this one didn’t get my heart.
I listened to the audiobook, which I didn’t love. I adored the narrator’s accent, and when she was just narrating Caroline’s thoughts I sank right in. But the voices of the other characters all felt off to me, and every time another character talked it drew me out of the story. They didn’t feel distinct at all. I may have liked this one better in print, and that’s how I’d recommend reading it.