What if heaven was divided up by age and country? What if kids went to their own categorized afterlife until they’d lived out the number of years they should have had on earth?
Oliver is a nerdy thirteen-year-old living in 1979 who’s always been picked on. When he wakes up in the hereafter it’s obvious he died from too much excitement for his defective heart, because he’d just succeeded in reciting the whole periodic table of the elements for the first time.
Life after death is not what Oliver expected. To start with, he didn’t think it existed, but if he had he wouldn’t have expected it to be in a large town with unscaleable concrete walls where everyone is American, thirteen years old and doesn’t grow older. He adjusts though, and begins making friends in a way he wasn’t able to before he died.
Then in the middle of the night, Johnny Henzel arrives. A classmate, he was one of the few who treated Oliver as a person. Johnny has been in a coma, but his sister talked to him as she sat at his bedside so he knows how they both died. They were shot by a ‘Gunboy’.
Boo* is an original and engaging story. It’s narrated by Oliver, who was given the nickname ‘Boo’ at school because he’s so pale he looks like a ghost. It’s a nice word play with the premise and themes of the story, which include fear, revenge, the impact of trauma and mental illness, forgiveness and friendship, as well as death, loss and bullying that are obvious at the beginning of the book . The voice of Oliver shines through the language, being written as though to his parents in the hope that one day he might deliver it via the fabled portals back to the pre-deceased world.
Oliver is a well-drawn character, who was obviously on the autistic spectrum in life while having high intelligence, much higher than his peers. In the Town of the thirteen-year-olds’ afterlife he finds that while his IQ may not be as high as pre-death, his ability to relate to others improves and he ponders his own response to the trade-off. Author Neil Smith uses the character’s observational abilities to good effect, allowing the reader to draw conclusions about the people around Oliver, even if he doesn’t always understanding them himself.
Of the secondary characters we get to know Johnny Henzel best, and he provides a contrast to the cerebral, withdrawn Oliver. Johnny is emotional, artistic and magnetic; he was well-liked in life, and is colourful in the afterlife. He and Oliver become friends even as he becomes obsessed with finding ‘Gunboy’ in the Town. The story of the book is really the contrasting arcs of Oliver and Johnny.
Thelma, a black girl who was murdered by racists, and Esther, a little person, round out Oliver’s friends. Thelma provides nurturing, having been in the afterlife nineteen years, and Esther has a cynical realism that Oliver relates to. As they embark on an extended journey around the Town in search of Gunboy, they provide emotional support and common sense and try to stop it from all going wrong.
Boo is clever, entertaining, and emotional without sentimentality. It explores dark themes without being macabre or offensive, and finishes with a satisfying conclusion. It may be too old for many pre-teens, as it’s an emotionally complex story, so I’d advise those looking for books for the younger end of the YA spectrum to check it out first and see if it works for the kids you know. Even if you don’t pass it on, you’ll get a really good read.