Tuesday, May 10, 2016

When a book makes you cry....days after you've finished it. Or: The Knife of Never Letting Go

Warning: Spoilers for The Knife of Never Letting Go.  I will say that I knew this event was going to happen in the book (but not how or when) and clearly it absolutely did not affect the emotional impact it had on me.  So on the one hand...you could read this, but on the other hand it might make you not want to read it, and on my virtual third hand I would definitely recommend reading it so basically I don't know what I'm saying here other than....you've been warned. Mega spoilers about said event abound.

I finished The Knife of Never Letting Go on Wednesday, and I've found in the days following that I still get extremely upset and will suddenly discover that I'm having to hold back tears. While it's not unusual for a death in a book to affect me deeply while I'm reading it, it does usually dissipates afterwards. There aren't many books I am emotionally affected by over time - I have a notoriously horrible memory, which in cases like this is a pretty alright thing in my book.  It's one thing in books like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - after all, I spent years growing up with those characters, so it's expected to have a huge emotional impact.  Last year's Going Bovine is probably the only other book I can think of that hit me this badly (The Book Thief shut me down so hard emotionally that I straight up compartmentalized that shit and now barely remember the experience at all, so it doesn't count).  For the most part, I mourn characters, am sad for the hour following....and then I'm all good.  I'm not going to lie - I've spent most of this post crying and I read this book a week ago.  So yeah. This definitely doesn't fall within the norm on books with emotional impact.

There are a few reasons for this: for one, I think I'm not alone in being more deeply affected by animal deaths than human ones in many cases. And in this case it's not just that it's an animal.

Manchee is introduced to us at the very beginning of the novel, and since he's infected with Noise (otherwise known as the reason all animals and men constantly project their thoughts so everyone can hear them), we know that's he's a simple creature, and that Todd is the center of his universe, even before Todd comes to love and appreciate Manchee back. Throughout the story Manchee frequently keeps Todd going or puts himself in danger's way to protect Todd, without any heed of danger to himself. It's that complete trust and loyalty we've seen over and over in dogs, and we begin to love Manchee fiercely because of it.  And as Todd begins to see what a gem he has in Manchee and their relationship - they really become family.  Manchee (and Viola) is really all Todd has in the world, and at this point they've all saved each others' lives multiple times and have an incredibly strong emotional bond.  In fact, they're really the only family in the book that feels remotely like a family.

And then it happens. And it's brutal. And the reason it upsets me so much is not just because of the brutality of his death, but because his heart is broken right before he dies. He is alone and scared...and abandoned. In his final moments he knows Todd isn't coming back for him, and because he's a dog, he doesn't know why. And for me at least, I think that's what the distinction between really sad and soul crushingly heart breaking.  

It's one thing for someone to heroically and courageously sacrifice themselves for someone else - it's another thing when it comes to animals (and young children for that matter).  They don't have a full understanding of why people act the way they do and they don't do much long term thinking - so when Manchee goes after Aaron it's instinctual because he loves Todd and wants to protect him in that moment - not because he's accepted his fate and gives his life for him.  He loves Todd and trusts Todd - Todd is his hero, his family, and Todd will rescue him.  Except that he doesn't.  And Manchee doesn't understand it's not because Todd can't rescue him.  And so his last thoughts are that Todd is leaving him and he doesn't know why.

“I’m sorry!” I cry as the river takes us away, my words ragged things torn from me, my chest pulled so tight I can’t barely breathe. “I’m sorry, Manchee!”“Todd?” he barks, confused and scared and watching me leave him behind. “Todd?”
“Manchee!” I scream.
Aaron brings his free hand towards my dog.
And Aaron wrenches his arms and there’s a CRACK and a scream and a cut-off yelp that tears my heart in two forever and forever.

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