Broken Soup by Jenny Valentine
Two years ago, Rowan’s older brother died. Jack, who could light up the room. Jack, whom everybody loved. Jack, who “looked after me and made me laugh and told me I was cool and taught me things nobody but your big brother can.” And nothing has been the same since.
Now Rowan is fifteen, living with her mother and six-year-old sister after her father moves out. Her mother has been lost in a depressed, medicated daze for the past two years and it’s been up to Rowan to singlehandedly care for Stroma and to keep their home life a secret from their father. But when an unknown boy holds a photo negative out to Rowan, telling her he’s sure it’s hers because he saw her drop it, everything begins to change.
You can see similarities in Broken Soup to Jenny Valentine’s previous novel, Me, the Missing, and the Dead. Both are about the aftermath of loss, beginning with an incident—call it coincidence or chance or fate—that sets the present story in motion, written in a similar, low-key style. But the book Broken Soup really reminds me of is Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta.
The similarities are thematic and in my emotional reaction to the books, not their structure. Like Jellicoe Road, Broken Soup is a book about loss and grief, family and friendship and love, coming to terms with the past and forging new relationships in the present that will affect the future. It’s told in a simpler, more accessible, not to mention shorter, form. And, as such, I thought Broken Soup lacked some of the magic I felt reading Jellicoe Road, particularly in the gradual realizations of how things fit together and fell into place.
But Broken Soup is a wonderful, beautifully written gem of a book on its own. And I loved it. I loved Rowan’s narration, with these tiny details, almost throwaway remarks, that make her situation even more heartrending.
[Stroma] asked me to draw a unicorn, and even though it looked more like a rhinoceros and should have gone in the garbage, she colored it pink out of loyalty and called it Sparkle. (p. 4)
And how Valentine portrays Jack, in such a way that you can feel how much Rowan and everyone else loved Jack, but he’s not idealized in her narration (except by their mother). Rowan remembers the flaws as well as the good times. Also wonderful is how Valentine brings to life the relationships between the characters, from the ruins of Rowan’s life with her parents to the tentative connections between Rowan and Bee, and Rowan and Harper, to, most of all, the bond between Rowan and Stroma.
I took Stroma with me to the shop. And all the time I was putting stuff into the basket and working out what we could afford, and saying no to marshmallows, but yes to chocolate biscuits, and planning what we’d have for supper and then breakfast. I didn’t have time to lose it. I didn’t have time to lie down in the corner shop and scream and beat the floor until my hands bled. I didn’t have time to miss Jack. Stroma kept on chattering away and getting excited over novelty spaghetti shapes and finding the joy in every little thing, and it occurred to me even then that she was probably looking after me, too. (p. 18-19)
Okay, I’ll stop quoting now before I quote the entire book. I did think Stroma a very precocious kid, particularly later in the book, but she broke my heart in the best possible way, and for this reason, her precociousness didn’t bother me. I also thought that one revelation in particular was rather predictable (Patti of Oops…Wrong Cookie disagrees), but it ultimately didn’t affect how I felt about Broken Soup.
Regardless of how you feel about Jellicoe Road, I hope you’ll give Broken Soup a try because I highly, highly, highly recommend it. If you liked Jellicoe, I think you’ll like Broken Soup. If you didn’t like Jellicoe, Broken Soup is a great alternative. And if it all sounds too depressing, there is still humor and resilience and hope in the story.