I'm a sucker for surprise endings. Not necessarily straight-forward mysteries (although I do love those too), but novels that sneak up and surprise you in the end. Novels where you assume one thing is going on and in the end, something entirely different is revealed. Stories like WALK TWO MOONS (although maybe that surprise can be seen a mile away) and WHEN YOU REACH ME (didn't see that one coming). So when I emailed famed book blogger Betsy Bird asking for recommendations and she steered me in the direction of DEPARTURE TIME, a translated novel from the Netherlands, I undoubtedly had high hopes.
DEPARTURE TIME is a novel telling two stories, alternating from chapter to chapter. In one story, a girl wakes up alone in an abandoned hotel in a desert, with no knowledge of how she has arrived. Her only company is a talking rat and a talking fox who serve as host and maintenance for the hotel. Familiar music is playing in the background and torn paper littering the landscape. Who is this girl? Who are these talking animals? Why do they recognize her? Where is the music coming from? Who is hiding out in the attic of the hotel?
The other story is about a girl who is angry with her father, a traveling musician, for missing her birthday again. She writes him a scathing letter, letting out all her frustration, and sends it to him not long before he dies in a horrific boat accident. Later she receives a rough draft story from him in the mail, a story he wanted to write together with her. A story about talking animals.
What do these two girls have in common? Are they one in the same?
This book reminded me of I AM THE CHEESE by Robert Cormier with equal parts WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead. It's an engaging, challenging read. As a reader, I spent 95% of this book utterly confused. Sometimes my confusion stemmed from the plot and not knowing how all the questions were going to be answered (if they even were). Sometimes my confusion stemmed from the fear that things could have gotten lost in translation from the Netherlands. I will say, that by the conclusion of the novel, most is revealed. However it is difficult to tell what is purposely metaphorical and what are just flat out loose ends. There are aspects of this book that I didn't truly understand (like the names in the book, Sky, Robin, Mouse) but would like to think are metaphors that could be cleared up with a second read. Then again, I'm not so sure. Maybe some readers will be able to dig deeper and find lots of meaning. Personally, I don't think I'm up for another go of it.
I guess my major feeling at this moment is disappointment. Lots of predictions flooded my brain early on. Is the girl dead? Is she in hell? Is she in a coma? Are the talking animals the talking animals in her father's story? (I mean, come on, it can't just be coincidence that her father's story included talking rats and a fox and in this alternate desert world, our girl Mouse is greeted by a talking rat and fox, can it?) The fact that one of these predictions was semi-correct, felt like a letdown. I was hoping to be blown away. I was hoping to be surprised. The ending is surprising, don't get me wrong, but the fact that the twist was something I had considered early on, meant that I wasn't taken by surprise as much as I would have liked. But, that's my fault, not Truus Matti's.
This book is definitely not for everyone. It would take a very special 5th, 6th, or 7th grade reader to carefully navigate this book in one reading. It would take an even more special reader to want to pick it up and do it all over again. I would love to read it, one story at a time. Read the odd chapters through first, taking in all of story A in the desert. Then read all the even chapters and take in story B. The problem with that is 3/4 of the way through the book, the stories begin to blend together, mid-chapter, ratcheting up the confusion!
As I said, it's an engaging read, and as Mouse moves from anger to acceptance over her father's death, the ride is thrilling enough without the mystery of the "alternate" desert universe unfolding. I think my hopes were just set a little too high for me to find any more enjoyment out of this than I did. Someone with more realistic expectations, may find it brilliant.
Final Grade: B-