In a dysfunctional family, Tara McClusky grows up isolated. There is no other kid in school who has to spoon feed and change her father, work in a retirement home to help pay the basics and tip-toe around a mother who seems to have no instinct to mother. Her mum works nights, so they cross paths without ever really communicating, in a perfunctory routine. “‘How was school?’ ‘Okay.’ We’ve got this pseudo-Mass thing going on, where Mum chants through her litany and I respond with practised care. It doesn’t pay to go off-script.” There are no hugs or comfort. Tara’s older sister has died after being sent away to family in Ireland to sort herself out. She had gone wild: promiscuous and druggy. But she was always a tower of love to Tara and now she has gone.
Tara paints. She’s good. It’s the only thing that keeps her at school, the fact that she can use the art room to work on a series of paintings where she reinterprets Van Gogh to express herself. The results surprise her with their darkness and repeated themes. Between the art room and her job, where she finds real compassion with the aged, Tara just about ticks over. There’s a man with his legs removed who she cares for and grows fond of. He has a nephew. We hope the nephew will grow into the story. These two seem to do Tara good.
But, and this isn’t a spoiler alert but the crux of the story, Tara learns that her sister, Van, didn’t die in a car accident, as she has been told, but she committed suicide. It makes no sense.
This is a deep topic for a YA novel and Mandy Hager treads in this space with care and precision. This is not a lightly written book. This is a story of a girl trying to understand the suicide of her sister. The parallel of Van Gogh helps to give bit of distance to a topic that might otherwise overwhelm. Tara process her emotions through compulsive reinventing of Van Gogh. She imagines her sister looking into a black and grey future.
Don’t you know all colours are transformed by simple shifts of light? What seems black in one moment reveals itself as midnight blue in another; grey brightens to silver green when dawn evicts the night.
There is a lot of pain in this story, both with the suicide of Van and the exploration of guilt and depression: long-term in the case of Tara’s mother, and inter-generational. But, God knows, there are so many teenagers for whom these complex emotions are part of their daily existence and in New Zealand we still don’t discuss these topics as we should, or know how to recognise and offer help to those who are depressed and suicidal. In Dear Vincent, one young girl’s story is explored. There is no miracle cure, no pills to make it better. There are lots and lots of tiny steps and life is rebuilt with a word here, a hand there. It feels like an honest and hopeful future.
This is on my list of compulsory reads for teens. The best time to introduce a conversation about depression and suicide with your kids is now. Read Dear Vincent and keep it on your bookshelf, or get a library copy and drop it on the table where the kids can pick it up. It may open a conversation they need.