Existence is a book I've been particularly wary of for a while now. First of all, I was really put off by the blurb. 'What happens when you're stalked by Death? You fall in love with him, of course.'
Now, to me that sounds really stalker-ish and not my kind of book. In my head, it was going to star some dithery heroine who falls in love with this creeper and offer women a horrendous view of what their ideal man should be like.
However, you can take another reading of that blurb – if you read it in a sarcastic, self-deprecating tone. So our heroine falls in love with this creeper and rolls her eyes constantly at the fact she is falling for said creeper.
Neither way makes the story sound very good, but hey. Language and context is a beautiful thing.
Enough about reading the blurb, though, let's get to the story. Pagan is a semi-popular girl attending Harbour High, along with her best friend Miranda. However, Pagan has a dark secret: she can see ghosts.The portrayal of ghosts, or 'spirits/souls', is kind of non-threatening to our heroine, but she complains about them anyway. They're startled by loud noises, and just tend to hover about. They don't possess her or hurt her in any way, but she's too panicky to go anywhere by herself, and when her mother leaves her alone one night, she immediately has to call her friend over. Later in the novel, she talks about how she wants to sleep in her mum's bed, and can't even take a shower when she's home alone because the ghosts bother her so much. I wasn't too thrilled with how spineless she seems when it comes to seeing these wandering spirits. All the panicking and crying just didn't make much sense. If she's been able to see them all her life, surely she should be used to it?
Pagan also has to deal with relationships and high school school drama, and there's also this one soul following her around who can actually talk. The book itself is about 90% high school melodrama, with sprinklings of the supernatural every once in a while. Sometimes Pagan goes for quite a few pages without seeing a ghost or this talking soul who follows her around. It really felt like reading two separate manuscripts – no, first drafts of said manuscripts – that had been stapled together.
Speaking of first drafts, though, my word, this was pretty badly edited. I'm aware it was probably self-published, but it needed more than a helpful bit of red pen – it needed pruning shears. There were so many run-on sentences, characterisation issues, so much ridiculous dialogue that didn't sound right in my head, let alone aloud, it occasionally strays into slightly offensive territory. There's also a few spelling and grammar mistakes here and there, but eh, it's self-published, I've come to expect that sort of thing.
One of my main bugbears, character-wise was a girl called Kendra, who every one of Pagan's friends hates for no reason at all. It's mentioned that she stole someone's boyfriend, and she says something nasty to Pagan once. Grounds for disliking someone, maybe, but going on about what an awful person she is? No thank you. Pagan's best friend Miranda calls Kendra 'Octopus Girl', sneers whenever she comes into the room, talks about her latest romantic exploits... Heck, Kendra even wears a skin-tight red dress at one point, as if we couldn't work out that she's considered by everyone to be a tart.
And now for a bit of a nitpick, in regards to the name of Guy #2 in the Inevitable YA Love Triangle. Dank.
I just don't understand why that name was chosen. Merriam Webster defines it thus:
Unpleasantly moist or wet – “a dank basement”.
It's just skin-crawling and repulsive to me. I was mentally changing his name to 'Dark', in the hopes I would stop associating him with the horrible feeling of a cold sweat.
Snap back to reality (oh, there goes gravity), Pagan herself isn't a heroine worth writing home about. She's really quite bland and seems to be defined only by the events which happen around her. Bella Swan syndrome all over, folks. In fact, this book pretty much is Twilight, since this novel's equivalent of Dead-Weird Cullen also harps on about how he can't be with this girl because he's too dangerous and he's not the man she thinks he is. He even sits in her bedroom while she's getting into bed, and strums a lullaby on his guitar. Oh, also, he waxes on about how he has to protect her... but there's no tension at all. Twilight might have had a whole first and second act full of fluff, but at least James was written as a legitimate threat, as laughable a villain as he was.
Pagan does have a chance for normality, though. At the beginning, she's characterised as very judgemental, but she overcomes it when she has to tutor one of the schools jocks (Leif) 'suffering' with dyslexia. He eventually becomes her boyfriend, but nope, Pagan has to pick the dead stiff over him at the end for no adequate reason.
Speaking of dyslexia, though, this novel really likes to run its mouth on these sensitive psychiatric and learning disability issues. First up, it's dyslexia.
1) Leif suffered from dyslexia? Was this a joke?
2) How could Leif Montgomery have dyslexia and no-one know it?
3) The revelation that Leif dealt with something like dyslexia and still managed to make good grades bothered me.
Dyslexia doesn't automatically mean stupid, and Pagan comes across as really callous and unlikable. I mean, not everybody with dyslexia chooses to broadcast it. I knew some dyslexic people at school, college and university who were really embarrassed that it took them ages to read a book compared to their peers, or that they could never read aloud in English because their classmates would tut or make fun of them as they struggled with what seemed like a simple sentence.
Also, what is this rubbish about Pagan wondering how Leif gets good grades? Fun fact of the day: 50% of NASA employees have dyslexia, and they're chosen for these jobs because of the way their brain works – heightened spatial awareness, better problem-solving skills... You can have a learning disability like dyslexia, dyspraxia, or dyscalculia and get good grades. You can go to university and earn a degree. It's not the be all and end all of your existence if you're diagnosed with any one of them.
Enough about dyslexia, though. Let's go on to the psychiatric issues.
Okay, so Pagan has a breakdown towards the end of the book. Just like Bella in Twilight, it's caused by the brooding supernatural guy leaving her presence for a while. Unlike Bella, however, Pagan is sent to see a psychiatrist. While in the office, Pagan actually considers making up that she cuts herself, or hears voices in her head. Yeah. Way to invalidate the people actually suffering with these conditions, you inconsiderate cow.
Pagan winds up being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This made me really angry, because... her trauma stems from her love interest leaving, with a mention of a car accident that happened really early in the story. Someone very close to me actually has PTSD, and Pagan's stupid, shitty little teen drama is NOTHING compared to what they have to go through. Hooray for invalidation.
Of course, she treats her stay at a retreat for girls struggling with psychiatric conditions with the same deft, careful swings of an axe-murderer.
Meeting teenagers with psychiatric disorders wasn't really appealing to me.
An older lady stood outside on the sand with a bag of what looked like sandwich bread, throwing it into the air while seagulls circled her head. Either she wasn't a local and didn't realise that this was a really good way to get pooped on, or she was a psychiatric patient who was too mental to care about a little bird poop.
I stared at the other closed doors wondering if everyone on this hall had the same disorder. If so it was going to be loud at night, with all the screaming caused by nightmares.
Charming.On another note, there are absolutely no stakes to any of this. Pagan is being stalked by a blonde, female soul that can talk, but Blonde-Female-Soul-That-Can-Talk doesn't ever do anything to her except speak about Pagan's imminent demise in a rather cryptic way. Dank will show up, and the discourse turns, without fail, into this formula:
Pagan: “Gee, that was a close call!”
Dank: “Why did you do that?”
Pagan: “I want answers, Dank.”
Dank: [anguished tone of voice] “I can't give you any, Pagan.”
Pagan: “Just what are you?”
Dank: “I... I can't tell you.”
Pagan: “Why not?”
Dank: “I just can't.”
ad infinitum, ladies and gentlemen. It's that bad. If there's supposed to be an air of mystery surrounding Dank, it's just not there. Apparently there's a society of immortal spirits, and Dank is supposedly Death, but it's mentioned offhandedly at the end of the novel and doesn't make much sense.The ending is quite lame as well. It just limps into place, and wearily flops down on itself, like an old dog with a bad leg. (Apologies for that simile.) The big revelation is that Dank is Death, and that Pagan was supposed to have died a few months ago, but Dank has protected her soul from being claimed ever since. This could have been a rather fascinating concept. I mean, it's explained that in this world, souls basically reincarnate over and over, with no memory of who they once might have been. You could do this without skipping down Special Snowflake Street (i.e., Pagan is the chosen one, or something), by simply having a subplot about how Pagan's ability to see all these ghosts is a hangover from the souls who have reincarnated into her. Maybe Dank tells Pagan that like some other people, she is clairvoyant and/or acutely aware of her past lives and the people who are passing into the next world. It's a better sell than the heroine just being able to see spirits and whimpering about how they're ruining her life, when they're not threatening her in the least.
There's also a cliffhanger dropped right at the end, without any build-up that would have made it surprising. You know Leif, Pagan's jock boyfriend who's her chance for normality? Well...
Dank stood up, placing me on the ground in front of him and slipping his hand in mine. “Pagan, I'm not sure how to tell you this, but... Leif isn't human.”
You don't just plop a cliffhanger at the end of your story. There has to be some kind of build up. A character acting a bit strange throughout the novel, a sense of foreboding, a heart-pounding rush towards the climax. Not just: “Oh, hey. Did you know that this guy isn't actually who he says he is?” END.
This book is a whole load of nothings, really. Boring interpersonal teen drama, vague mentions of Death and ghosts every once in a blue moon, and an indecisive, mean-spirited heroine who just isn't interesting to read about. Pagan likes to say she has a lot of trouble in her life, but... where is it? Is she genuinely haunted by the sightings of these ghosts? If they can't speak or hurt her in any way, why does she fearfully skitter around and avoid empty rooms and sleeping alone at night? You know, Haley Joel Osment's character in The Sixth Sense was disturbed not only by the ghosts he could see, but because they didn't know that they were dead. They walked, talked, and went about their lives like regular people, but had no idea they'd shuffled off the mortal coil. That is a much more riveting reason for a heroine to be scared of the fact she can see dead people walking around. Maybe Pagan could be scared because the ability has only recently developed and she's still getting used to it.
Both love interests are boring as hell. Leif is a normal guy, and originally there to teach Pagan to not be so judgemental. He doesn't develop from there at all. Dank, on the other hand, glorifies that awful possessive boyfriend trope, in that he growls into Pagan's ear (physically and telepathically) at times, and he watches her while she's sleeping. I don't care that he serenades her with guitar songs like Sam from Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver. It doesn't add anything to his character. Pagan is a dull girl romanced by a dull jock and a dull yet musically-gifted supernatural being.
The novel doesn't have anything thoughtful to say. The most introspection and character development you get is when Pagan realises she was wrong for treating Leif the way she did, and the story trundles along tediously. While it's far from one of the worst books I ever read, it's unimaginative, boring, and a mercifully short Twilight knock-off. 1/5.