There are things that can’t be explained, the narrator of I’m Right Here tells us, such as magic, ghosts and the afterlife.
Hachette Books Ireland, €14.99, pb
So how can 15-year-old Cassie persuade her shrinks and doctors that she’s not insane when she knows she has a real and tangible bond with EL, a 13-year-old slave girl who lived on a plantation in antebellum Virginia 150 years ago?
New Yorker Cassie is a young woman with a ravenous appetite for escapist fiction, with a list of favourites that includes the ‘Harry Potter’ novels, the ‘Narnia’ tales and the stories of Tír na nÓg.
It’s just as well Cassie has fictional worlds to disappear into, because her reality is becoming uglier by the minute: her mother, an author, is an alcoholic whose tell-all memoir destroyed the reputation of Cassie’s beloved grandfather, with the result that her parents are separating with a view to divorce.
Is it any surprise that Cassie, a sensitive introvert with a vivid imagination, might invent a friend in whom she can confide?
Her psychiatrist thinks not, but Cassie is adamant: EL is real, communicating with Cassie across time and space as she and EL write to one another, Cassie posing the questions with her right hand and receiving EL’s answers with her left.
As the pair bond, it quickly becomes apparent that EL’s plight is considerably worse than Cassie’s: can Cassie somehow contrive to go back in time and change EL’s life forever?
Yvonne Cassidy’s fourth novel is an impressively ambitious affair, one that deals with teenage mental illness with compassion and imagination. Cassie protests (perhaps too much) that the reader ‘will think I made it up, or that I’m crazy, or both,’ or that her experience of EL is just ‘some dumb ghost story.’
Crucially, however, Cassie also tells us that she believes her parents may not have split up if only she had read the copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer her father gave her, a book she found too difficult to read ‘with all the funny old-fashioned words and the way Jim the slave spoke’.
The irony won’t be lost on the reader: EL co-narrates I’m Right Here as she converses with Cassie, and Yvonne Cassidy vividly recreates the everyday cruelties of plantation life, with EL speaking in the thick patois of the illiterate slave.
Nevertheless, EL and Cassie are on the same page when it comes to books: EL’s surrogate mother Charity teaches her to read the Bible, informing EL that ‘Readin’ gives you freedom’.
When Cassie’s mother takes away her books, believing her fertile imagination needs a break from escapist fiction, Cassie erupts in a fury: ‘Mom, they’re books! They’re supposed to help you escape reality. That’s what they’re for!’.
Indeed, it’s through reading books that Cassie first works out how to change the past by meeting with EL, courtesy of inspiration derived from novels including The Great Gatsby and Slaughterhouse-Five, although it’s at this point that the plot begins to run aground, which Cassidy implicitly alludes to when Cassie, after meeting with EL, admits, ‘I’ve never known how this works and I probably never will’.
The technical details of time-travel aside, Cassidy never fully manages to establish a credible parity of need between her co-narrators: Cassie might well be a troubled teenager struggling to cope with her parents’ break-up, but her troubles pale by comparison with EL’s brutal experience of slavery.
All told, I’m Right Here isn’t quite all there. That said, it remains an absorbing read throughout, not least because Yvonne Cassidy’s evocation of EL’s place and time is so richly detailed and Cassie’s flight from reality in search of truth, even a truth she is forced to invent for herself, is so hauntingly rendered.
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