The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

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The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Tanja Jennings
Reviewed by Tanja Jennings
Summary: A poignant portrait of a girl who adopts a scientific hypothesis to help understand a calamitous event in her life. Benjamin's novel is a perceptive perspective on the nature of grief and a fascinating study of a creature that is dangerous to others even after it is dead. It packs a powerful combination of shock and awe.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: March 2016
Publisher: Macmillan
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781447292999

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Ali Benjamin describes her accomplished debut novel as a work where despair and wonder come together. When we first meet Suzy she cannot speak after a traumatic incident. Her family is struggling to cope with her silence and she is averse to the therapy of 'Dr Legs'. It is only through her flashback sequences, written in italics, and her passion for a science report that the reader comes to know her and sympathise with her suffering. Suzy is experiencing a cauldron of emotions including grief, guilt, denial and a tumultuous desperation to discover what she perceives to be the truth. It is this zeal which makes her refuse to believe her eccentric mother's explanation that sometimes things just happen and fanatically pursue her own best educated guess.

Inspired by her sparky and charismatic science teacher Mrs Turton, Suzy embarks on a quest which gives her the determination to travel far from her home in South Grove, Massachusetts in search of the one person who will understand. She is also attempting to cope with the cruelties of Middle School and the pressure to conform. Suzy's intelligence, love of reading and intense wonder at the world gives her the unjust label of a geek. Aubrey La Valley, Molly Sampson and Jenna Van Hoose form an insipid and shallow 'plastic' clique who tie their T-shirts into knots at their hips and mock her for not being interested in fashion and boys. They hang around with mean, cocky, unkind Dylan, who is the catalyst of Suzy's betrayal by one who she thought 'got her'. Benjamin's fragile, imaginative and sensitive protagonist hears an orchestra of sound in the trees during a nature trip which leads to ridicule. Her unpopularity leaves her stuck with Justin when the class have to pair up, a boy who slid down a hallway on a buttered stomach which resulted in skin burn. Yet, he is the only classmate who doesn't seem to judge her. She just wishes he wouldn't follow her to her refuge at lunchtime. Might there be more to him than first impressions?

Benjamin uses the creative device of presenting each section of her book like a scientific report consisting of a 'Purpose', an 'Hypothesis', 'Variables', 'Procedure' , 'Results' and a 'Conclusion'. She provides intertextual references which can be followed up from her author's note in the appendix. Each part is prefaced by the image of a Jellyfish as Suzy's Field Notes unfold and the reader realises the full psychological effect the events of sixth grade and her own actions have had on her. Suzy has given up on speech, much to the consternation of her week-end father, because Dumb old words don't mean a thing, fill up too much space and sometimes end relationships forever. The trouble is her compulsory science report is verbal. Then there is the horror of the forthcoming 'Heroes and Villains' school dance, a day when she plans to be on another continent.

Why is Zu obsessed with 'irukandji', researching 'experts' and the sterility of urine? What happens at Rock Camp Lake which makes Suzy decide to send a terribly wrong message to the one person she prays will comprehend? Why do her classmates start calling her Medusa? Who are Rocco, Franny, Aaron and Belle? What mistake did Bridget Brown make? Why does Jamie Seymour nearly die? What is Diana Nyad's greatest achievement? Do Zombie ants exist? What is a 'Turritopsis nutricula'? In 'The Thing About Jellyfish' who is real and who are imaginative constructs of the author? For all these answers and more, read this New York Times' bestseller and 2015 winner of 'The Bookseller Industry Awards'. It showcases astounding facts about the universe while sensitively portraying the pain of loss, family breakup, fragmented friendship and growing pains. Suzy is fallible and makes the wrong choices but what she does is in pursuit of scientific proof and redemption. Don't be surprised if you shed a tear.

If you wish to discover more about the wonders of nature you could dive into Will Jellyfish Rule the World? by Leo Hickman and Ripley's Believe It or Not! 2014 by Robert Leroy Ripley. Alternatively, for a deeper exploration of bereavement, the difficulty of assimilating into a new environment and the search for oneself why not check out How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant by Elen Caldecott, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine and Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar which offer emotion, humour and sensitive writing.

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