I’ve been excited to read Shatter Me since I first read a blurb earlier this year. Oddly enough, I believe the reviewer actually sat in the “hate it” camp, so while I was aware early on of the largely contrasting views amidst bloggers, it only made me that much more eager to judge it for myself. While I accede many of the complaints that reviewers have made regarding Mafi’s writing style, I nonetheless quite enjoyed this first book in the Shatter Me series.
The single most heralded attribute of this novel is also the largest complaint that many readers have. Mafi’s writing style is distinctive, I’ll give her that. As the story opens, protagonist Juliette has been imprisoned in isolation for 264 days. Her narration flows like free verse, blocking out pages with abundant description and repeated rethinking of word choice. Nearly every other sentence is crossed out, though whether we are to find greater truth in these rephrased portions or in their replacements, Mafi never clarifies. Juliette’s voice undoubtedly serves as the anchor for the first half of the story. As she struggles to comprehend the events that unfold, to discern who she can trust, and whether she can even trust herself,
Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
Juliette’s narration focuses largely on sensory experiences. Mafi’s word choice appears very deliberate; Juliette experiences things in metaphors and hyperbolic adjectives. Mafi compounds this linguistic effect with numerous run-on sentences and idiosyncracies. Back in grade school, I used to scorn grading rubrics that imposed confines on my grammatical choices. I already knew all of the proper rules, and yet while the authors I loved were able to defy these rules when they so desired in the name of artistic liberty, I was forced to adhere to them. While Juliette’s unique voice was the selling point of Shatter Me for me, unfortunately, I believe that Mafi’s artistic choices exemplified too much of a good thing and proved my English teacher’s point.
In theory, Mafi’s decision to infuse Juliette’s voice with such vibrant language could have served to make her a standout among YA heroines whose musings often border on the ponderous or ambivalent. In reality, Juliette’s voice is simply too much to bear. I believe this lies partly in insufficient explanation. Mafi tells readers of Juliette’s background, of the fact that her parents didn’t want her and that she had no friends, yet by giving us the bare facts from present-day Juliette’s perspective, we never fully grasp how much of her personality is a result of her imprisonment versus an extension of her early developmental years in an unnurturing environment. If it is merely an effect of her imprisonment (as is suggested by the fact that the crossed-out portions diminish greatly in the second half), is two-hundred plus days of solitude enough to alter one’s thought patterns so fundamentally? On the other hand, if her voice is in fact a result not of her two-hundred days of confinement, but rather seventeen years of effective solitude due to others’ fear of her power, what are we to make of her unique manner of expression? Is it a sign of strength that she has managed to cope despite her unfavorable circumstances, or weakness that her brain operates in such a distinctive way?
Though Mafi’s usage of language comes across as quite intentional, when you actually contemplate the particular phrases she uses, the narrative devolves into an incomprehensible mishmash of mixed metaphors. So, too, is her excessive use of adjectives flawed in her word choices. What exactly is a “punctured shadow?” I believe Mafi thinks she has a better grasp of language than she actually does. She describes one of the characters as “excited and nervous all the time. He’s a walking oxymoron,” yet these terms aren’t actually oxymorons- not even close- and so I’m not sure where she is seeing the oxymoron. There’s a reason most authors use literary devices sparingly. The impact is muted by repeat exposure. Thus, the visceral sympathy of a statement like “Adam finds me curled into a ball on the shower floor. I’ve been crying for so long I’m certain the hot water is made of nothing but my tears” is lost as white noise. (And yes, I’m aware of the hypocrasy of my own use of metaphor). Another critique that isn’t as serious as those previously mentioned yet that bothered me nonetheless is Juliette’s habit of using digits rather than spelling out numbers. We are never given any indication why she does this, and so it is left as an unexplained and unnecessary piece to a puzzle that we no longer need to solve once we determine that she is not insane.
As excited as I was for the promise behind the premise of the first half, Mafi’s idea didn’t quite pan out. Fortunately, the story picks up a bit in the second half as the action becomes more intense and we are introduced to a few secondary characters who I hope Mafi takes to time to flesh out in the next installment. Bear in mind, Mafi doesn’t break any new ground in the YA dystopian field; as the story progresses, is soon becomes apparent that the journey will be achingly similar to many dystopian and superhero tales that have come before. Still, Mafi manages to make the trip enjoyable if not terribly original. I do hope that she resists the temptation to unveil certain “good” characters as evil later on in the series. It’s been done before and so feels more trite than complex when I come across this plot twist nowadays. And while the ending clearly establishes this as the first installment in an arc, thankfully it doesn’t present a cliffhanger. Juliette’s progression is fulfillment enough at this point, so while most major plotlines are still up in the air, the conclusion is nevertheless satisfying enough to preclude withdrawal symptoms until the next book is released.
Reflecting on the characters themselves, there isn’t a lot to write home about. Juliette is essentially a Mary Sue in a designer straight jacket which she shrugs off within the first hundred pages. She’s not vapid, but neither does she have the spunk of Katniss. Adam is unfortunately a cardboard love interest stand-in, not the worst I’ve come across by any means, but he offers very little as an independent character. His purpose is clearly to serve as a reflection of Juliette’s best qualities, to reaffirm her goodness and purpose, to remind readers of the cruelty of the new regime, and to provide a few sympathetic moments when interacting with his younger brother. Mafi is going to have to work to beef up the romantic plotline past the standard fated lovers fare, and I believe she has the means to do so.
Overall, I wasn’t nearly as offended by Mafi’s writing style as many have been, but I didn’t find it an attribute either. She’s created the barebones of a world that I actually want to continue reading about, but she’ll have to up the ante to retain my interest in the next book. This calls for more attention to worldbuilding in particular, as the majority in this book was conferred through info-dumping. Still, I’ll be around for the release of novella Destroy Me in October and second book Unravel Me next year.