April 13, 2013

Whatever Doesn't Kill You

Written by Elizabeth Wennick
Orca Book Publishers
202 pp.
Ages 12+

Most of us know the old saying, "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger."  But, youngCanLit author Kari-Lynn Winters (Gift Days, 2012; Jeffrey and Sloth, 2008) was quoted at the Blue Spruce 10th Year anniversary exhibit at the Canadian National Exhibition in 2012 declaring that, "What doesn't kill you makes a good story."  In Elizabeth Wennick's Whatever Doesn't Kill You, both maxims are equally accurate.

The only life Jenna, now almost 16, can truly remember began several days after her birth, with the murder of her father at his convenience store.  Everything that would become her life is dependent on that moment.  It changes her mother, her older brother Simon (now 32), and her older sister Emily (now 23).  How things might have turned out if her father had not been murdered is left to Jenna's imagination.  But when she learns that the man who murdered him, Travis Bingham, has been released from prison and is currently in a half-way house, she is determined to know why her father had to die and to let Travis Bingham know what he has done to her family.

Jenna's family certainly does not resemble the families she enjoys watching in the old sitcoms like The Cosby Show and Family Ties.  Jenna's mom is in a nursing home, after years of odd behaviour that culminated in a near suicide.  She doesn't even recognize all her children when they visit.  Simon had to return home to take care of them and now manages the crummy apartment building in which they live.  Emily flits from boyfriend to boyfriend, having had a son when in her teens, still rarely keeping a job and doing drugs. And Jenna considers herself one of the "sore thumbs" that make up her group of overweight friend Katie, French vampire girl Marie-Claire and Griffin.

But when Jenna feels unsupported by her friends in her need to continue focusing on her dad's murder, she finds herself keeping company with Ashley, popular girl on the outs with the in-crowd. Bringing Ashley into her world allows Jenna to see her family in a different light, even asking some questions she never thought to ask before.  With a change in perspective and a little investigative work stemming from old yearbooks, plus her climactic visit with Travis Bingham, Jenna learns a lot more about Whatever Doesn't Kill You.

Though the title and cover may suggest a violent story, Whatever Doesn't Kill You is best described as haunting. The ghosts that are around, though, are the virtual ones of guilt, fear, and the unknown. Elizabeth Wennick does not need to create paranormal circumstances to instill a sense of foreboding or darkness; real life is generally dark enough, especially for a family plagued by tragedy.  Although the reader will appreciate the outlook at story's ending, Elizabeth Wennick never goes for the easy route of tying up all storylines and going for the happily-ever-after. She keeps things real. And the reality of Whatever Doesn't Kill You is that we sometimes construct the lives we think we deserve, punishing ourselves for the lives we don't have. 

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