In the Way of All Flesh
by Caitlin Donovan
Regal Crest Enterprises, September 1, 2019
Paperback, 212 Pages, $17.95
or eBook, $9.99
Warnings for: Spoilers, Suicidal Ideation, Attempted Suicide, Child Death, Child Abuse
One of the first things you’ll hear in a fiction workshop is to “get to the action”. Don’t worry about the set-up, don’t worry about what comes first, just start with a moment of transition and go from there.
In her debut novel, In the Way of All Flesh, Caitlin Donovan leaps into the deep end with both feet, if you’ll excuse the cliché.
Donovan, who wrote this novel while completing her bachelor’s and MFA, won the Wilma Dykeman Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2012. Her first published book was a poetic collaboration between herself and her grandfather, Dr. Edward Caldwell, so you could say Donovan is a Jack of all trades.
In the Way of All Flesh might be disconcerting for those readers not used to YA’s tendency to jump right into the action—within the first four pages, protagonist Manee Srikwan is abundantly clear about what exactly is going on: the moment her bare arm is touched, we watch through Manee’s eyes as sometimes-bully, sometimes-friend Callie Moore is struck and killed by a passing vehicle. We learn very quickly thereafter that there’s nothing anyone, not even secondary protagonist and love interest Stephanie Pierce, can do to stop this predicted future from happening.
Something Donovan does well is to get right into the mindset of a teen on the cusp of adulthood. There were several times I got frustrated with Manee and Stephanie, simply because they were behaving the way hormonal teenagers in ninth grade behave. She’s also careful not to do the thing a lot of YA novels get tripped up with; there are less than ten characters of import in the novel, and they all have pretty rounded characterizations. Outside of the two protagonists, no one other character feels weightier than any other. It’s not often, in my experience, that secondary characters are given enough emotional depth to make a reader actually care about what happens to them in most YA series. I found Emma and Jackson to be the most compelling secondary characters—there’s something about their dynamic that makes me want to read their story, see their lives through their eyes. Emma has ADHD, and Jackson has an anxiety disorder, which just feels so real that it’s hard not to be compelled by them. There’s a depth to them that makes them feel like real people, not just props to play off of Manee’s story.
This novel doesn’t shy away from the heavier topics. As stated above, we are witness to the violent vehicular death of one of Manee’s classmates during the first few pages of the novel. We see that death again and are eventually given the details about two other child and teen deaths connected to our main characters. Manee has to learn to deal with everything that comes with death, even as she’s trying to navigate high school and having her first crush and coming to terms with her sexuality. There’s also already stress between Manee and her family—her father and sister are all who’s left, after the death of her mother, and they both are convinced Manee is mentally ill, not trying to cope with a supernatural superpower. The strain in these relationships leave Manee alone, adrift in everything that’s going on around her with nowhere to anchor herself.
It means Manee’s emotions can go from one extreme to another with no warning, which can be frustrating, until you remember this is a ninth grader dealing with everything. How would we have reacted back when we were her age? It’s easy to be sympathetic when Manee’s self-hatred turns inward and spirals out, because we’ve all been that angsty teen convinced we were the cause of all the problems in our lives. And what if we could literally see the deaths of those we touch? How could we ever convince ourselves it’s not our fault when there’s nothing we can do to save those we love? Manee has already tried and failed to save those whose deaths she’s seen, so how can we blame her for wrapping herself up and keeping herself away from the rest of the world?
Another traditional mainstay of the genre is drama, and there’s plenty of that in In the Way of All Flesh. Of course, everything seems to get answered by the end. Personally, I’m not always satisfied with happily ever after, everything tied up with a bow at the end sorts of stories. I like realism. But in a world where “bury your gays” is still an extremely common thing we have to deal with in our current media, having the two gay girls alive and together in the end feels cathartic. I will give a warning and say that the relationship between Manee and Stephanie is very toxic, which might be triggering to some people, but we’re given enough evidence in the end that they are able to work together and through their problems with each other, that their relationship moves from a toxic teen tragedy into something actually tender.
That’s one of the aspects of this novel I think is important: when there are transgressions made against another character, it doesn’t just get swept away and forgotten on the next page. There are genuine moments of apology and actions taken to make amends, which is something I’ve not often seen in most media, YA notwithstanding. There is genuine contrition and sorrow when a character wrongs another in this book, and they don’t simply rely on words to prove that. They take real action to deserve the forgiveness they’re given.
All in all, for those looking for a YA novel with a paranormal twist, and protagonists who aren’t your typical fare, In the Way of All Flesh is a novel I think many people will be able to resonate with.