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Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Things She's Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina | review

Disclosure: This is NOT a sponsored review, though this book was sent to me for review consideration purposes. All thoughts and opinions are honest and my own. Affiliate links used where possible. Thanks for helping support this site!

The Things She's Seen, Ambelin Kwaymullina, Ezekiel Kwaymullina, Australian fiction, Austrailan YA, Aboriginal fiction, Aboriginal young adult, mystery books, surrealist books, magical realism, book review

The Things She's Seen by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Mystery/Paranormal/Contemporary/Surrealist/Magical Realist, 189 pages
Published May 14th 2019 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
Nothing's been the same for Beth Teller since the day she died.

Her dad is drowning in grief. He's also the only one who has been able to see and hear her since the accident. But now she's got a mystery to solve, a mystery that will hopefully remind her detective father that he is still alive, that there is a life after Beth that is still worth living.

Who is Isobel Catching, and why is she able to see Beth, too? What is her connection to the crime Beth's father has been sent to investigate--a gruesome fire at a home for troubled youth that left an unidentifiable body behind? What happened to the people who haven't been seen since the fire?

As Beth and her father unravel the mystery, they find a shocking and heartbreaking story lurking beneath the surface of a small town, and a friendship that lasts beyond one life and into another...

"I'm not telling you what happened to ask for help," she said.

"Then why are you telling it?"

Catcher drew her legs up to her chest and rested her chin on her knees. "To be heard."

Clocking in at less than 200 pages, The Things She's Seen can easily be read in a day. But even if it were a longer book, it'd likely still be a one-sitting read for a lot of people; once the ball gets rolling, the mystery and the dual narratives are so compelling that most readers will want to gobble it right up in one go. Especially short books — much like especially long books (or even not especially long books; I've talked before about my antipathy for books of the "I like big books and I cannot lie" variety...) — are often a risky venture. Many a micro-book has started strong, but ended up leaving me wanting, and just wishing that the author had filled the story out a bit more — after all, it's not like they are going to blow their printing costs budget on adding in those few extra pages, when you're talking about a book that comes in 100+ pages under the norm. It's a rare gem when I find a short book that packs in all it needs to economically, without sacrificing story, development, or style. The Things She's Seen is spare prose that doesn't leave you wanting. Nothing needed to be added to this. Nothing needed to be fluffed. Everything felt purposeful and fully realized, and I have to tip my hat to the Kwaymullinas for that achievement.

It's difficult to say exactly why this is or what I loved about it, because frankly, I don't want to give away any bit of the mystery or spoil any of the impact of the reveal. There were times I was hesitant in the beginning, especially with the shift in styles between the two narratives, but as a whole, the book is resonant and impactful in a way a lot of books try to be, but fail. In very short order, The Things She's Seen tackles high concept and/or tricky offerings, like surrealism / magical realism, speculative dead-MC narration, dual POVs, grief, rape culture, racism and colonialism, among others, and makes them not only harmonious, but refrains from being heavy-handed or preachy. The storytelling feels emotionally realistic, and the grief and mystery at the heart of the story(ies), while dark, is limned in hope. It's an impressive feat.

I think readers' enjoyment of the story does probably hinge on the character and narration of Catching, though. Stylistically, it's not a book to universally please. Readers may be frustrated by confusion and extensive use of symbolism, or feel there are gaps that need to be filled. But I think there also may be frustration in how her story is told, in the text itself — short, sharp sentence fragments is not a style to win everyone over (myself included, though I grew to like it in this case, and it does help to keep Catcher's story distinct from Teller's, as well as heighten the surreality of her narrative.) To be fair, the book itself is not a book to win everyone over. It pushes you and tests you and makes you second guess; it challenges you, and sinks its teeth into the shared pain of the past; it hurts you. That may make it sound like work, but it's a story that flows and drags you along with it. Most readers will probably know pretty quickly whether it's a story that will work for them, stylistically, but for those who remain unsure, I highly encourage you to stick with it and try something that may be out of your comfort zone. I think you'll find it a worthwhile push outside your boundaries.

For those reader-types who aren't put off by any of the things mentioned above, I definitely recommend picking this one up, tearing through it, and then mulling it over for a few days to come. I have a suspicion it's the type of book to be just as affecting, and maybe even more so, upon a reread, and it would also make great book club discussion fodder. And I know I'm a dork, but all of those things are good things, as far as I'm concerned.

Side note: This book is also known as Catching Teller Crow, which I don't love as a title on its own (it seems very typical), but having read the book, is sort of perfect.


  1. Well, well, this does sound like one I'd get into. I've seen the cover a time or two, but not investigated more closely. Definitely going on the list now.

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