Gil Marsh is the name of the main character of this book. He is an athletic and popular boy, who feels threatened when a new boy, Enko, shows up at school at first. Enko seems to be able to run harder than Gil can, and quickly snatches up the girl Gil was supposed to have as a date to a highschool dance. However, Gil soon learns that Enko does not intend him to be jealous, and they become friends. However, that’s when tragedy strikes. Enko dies of an aggressive form of cancer. His parents bury him in Canada and Gil is unable to let go of his former friends. Opposed by his parents, Gil emerges on a trip to find the grave of his friend, and to come to terms with his loss.
A few years ago, in my first year of religious studies, I took a class on the Old Testament in its cultural context. One of the books that was repeatedly mentioned was the Epic of Gilgamesh. I vividly remember the teacher’s descriptions and I admit I cannot hear the name of that tale without some form of fascination taking hold. Of course, I have failed utterly in following up on that impulse and actually reading the epic. I hope that will change someday.
I am not telling you this story to let you in on my failure to read classics. Instead, I hope that it explains why I could not resist requesting the egalley of this Young Adults contemporary retelling of the Gilgamesh epic when it appeared on Netgalley. Due to time restraints and the inevitable expiration date on egalleys I never read it. Now, a few months later, I ended up reading it in print, which is perhaps better because this means I won’t have to sent a disappointed opinion straight to the publisher.
Why was I disappointed?
Firstly, the plot felt a little underdeveloped. The friendship between Gil and Enko felt a little too sudden, especially for Gil to feel so lost when he lost Enko. Sure, we are told that they were the closest of friends before Enko became ill, and yet I would have liked to have read about it more. At the very least that would have enabled me to feel more for Gil.
Which brings me to the second point at which this book disappointed: the characterisation of Gil. We are told that Gil is athletic, smart, and popular, and yet, that smartness never really shows throughout the story. I will allow any character its faults in a book, but the craze with which Gil pursues his idea of finding Enko’s grave, without thinking it through or consulting Enko’s parents for clues.. it’s all a little bit farfetched. I do not know much about the Epic of Gilgamesh, but I can imagine how in that book a search for meaning is explored as a consequence of loss. I feel that the same is attempted in this book, but the circumstances under which Gil pursues meaning are not easy to commit to as a reader. He thinks his parents won’t understand, and he cannot ask for the help of Enko’s parents because they would know where he was once his parents found out he had run away.. I don’t know, it’s all a little too convenient to allow Gil his trip on his own.
And once he’s on that trip, the decisions he makes feel so out of the blue. There are moments when I sighed because of the way he acts. He takes the help of so many strangers for granted, in a naive and sometimes selfish manner. He doesn’t seem to think of consequences before he acts, at any step on the way of his trip. Perhaps this was meant as a “coming of age” theme in the book, but for me personally, it did not work. Instead, I was left with the feeling that Gil was a little too selfish. But most of all, I think I do not like it when teenagers are depicted as solely self-absorbed. Yes, I was selfish in my sadness back when I was fifteen, at times, but it’s a leap to go from that to the behaviour of Gil. I know I was not meant to take it that way, but with the way the story was build up, I feel that my sympathy was lacking exactly because I got so little time to acquire any for him.
And yet, I did finish reading this book. Reading it was not a punishment. I think the problem is that I constantly felt that it could have been so much more. That it might have been a very deep and meaningful exploration of what loss does to people, and how we all have to find a way to deal with that. Or it might have been an exploration of the meaningful friendships humans can establish. Gil Marsh, however, only seems to skim the surface of both themes, which meant that it ended up being unsatisfactory.
P.S. I am starting to think that perhaps I just have trouble with this kind of travel tale. I felt a similar detachment for this story as I felt when I read Away by Amy Bloom, which I also felt only skimmed the surface of what it could have been.