I had decided I was going to love this book before I had even opened it. The excellent title and the beautiful cover had already drawn me in. So, I was a little disappointed when I didn’t love it immediately . The truth is it took me a little while to form any kind of bond with ‘If I Knew…’ but more about that in a moment.
The time is the 1970’s (another reason to love this book, being a child of the 70’s). The Vietnam War has ended and the aftermath is being felt by Katie and her disparate collection of damaged friends. Young men have returned from the war, some irepairably scarred, to take up life again in the small close knit community of Elephant Beach on Long Island. As the young men battle physical wounds and psychological demons the young women are coping with this fallout whilst managing their own emotional issues.
One of my immediate difficulties with the book was the sheer volume of characters, many of whom seemed quite similar. So much so, that I often found myself referring back to remind myself of who was who. There was also a lot of swearing and I do struggle with a lot of swearing!
Despite all this, I kept going so that by the time I reached the half way point I had a grip on the characters, and the story. I was drawn into Katie’s world and began to care about what was happening to her and her troubled friends.
The story covers, drugs, alcoholism, abortion, disfigurement, unemployment, war and mental instability, so its not always an easy read. Many of the characters are deeply wounded and at times I found reading about lives falling apart at such a young age bleak and a little dispiriting. However it made me consider the effect a war being fought in a far flung place can have on a whole community. Some of these effects will inevitably be long lasting and even irreversible.
The novel cleverly portrays the psychological fall out of war and what it means to be be constantly on the edge of something looking in. Young men are back from war trying to re-discover a life they left behind, and never quite managing it. Katie is never quite one of the ‘cool kids’, she is always on the fringes, and we see a group of mentally unstable characters become rejects of the Elephant Beach community because of their differences.
The characters are not always likeable, although Katie’s character was honest and warm throughout,and I enjoyed watching her develop and mature. There is a particularly touching scene towards the end of the novel when Katie’s Dad tries to explain to her the realities of war. At this point it seems Katie begins to appreciate the bigger picture, accept who she is and understand the fragility of the psychological landscape her friends inhabit.
Judy Chicurel captures the mood of being a teenager in a flawed small town, at a particular time, desperate for everything to stay the same, against the background of inevitable change.
I was glad I stuck with this book as the story did develop, characters became more rounded, relationships grew and a satisfying conclusion was reached.
This book isn’t published until 30th October (today in fact!) so I feel very lucky to have read it already. Thank you to Tinder Press who sent me the proof copy of this book via Bookbridgr for review purposes. All opinions are very much my own.
image via changing-pages