Review of “Shatter Me” by Tahereh Mafi

This is a young adult dystopia that readers either love or hate (I explain why under Discussion, below), and I’m totally in the “I loved it” camp. The story is told in the form of entries in the diary of Juliette Ferrars, a 17-year-old who has been imprisoned by “The Reestablishment,” the government faction that is supposed to renew the dying society. But, as with most dystopias, the new group in control has become drunk on power and despotic.

In this future scenario, the ecosystem has become severely distorted by human abuse, and one of the effects is that some people have developed “special abilities” that are not normal. In Juliette’s case, if she touches anyone, that person will die. Once, when overcome by a desire to help a little boy, without forethought she picked him up with fatal effect, and that is in part why she is incarcerated. But the main reason is that her own parents turned her in as “a freak of nature.”

As the story begins, Juliette has been in solitary confinement for 264 days, and she has just been told she is getting a roommate. Her roommate is not another female, however, but a male, one who is disarmingly handsome, and furthermore, one that she knows.

Before long, the two prisoners, Juliette and Adam, are brought before Warner, the cruel leader of their district. Warner tells Juliette he wants her to perform torture for him, and assigns Adam to guard her. The dynamic among the three of them intensifies, and the dangers rocket out of control.

Discussion: Because this book is in the form of Juliette’s diary, the text appears as if it consists of actual entries, including cross-outs, stream of consciousness, and many metaphorical expressions of feelings. You may possibly recall that in the past I have complained about authors whose language is pretty at the expense of meaning. In this case, I do not. The reason is that, if the voice in a book is that of an omniscient narrator, then I have an expectation of being able to derive understanding from a rational interpretation of the sentences. In Shatter Me, the voice comes from the writing in a girl’s diary, so I have no objection to the occasional use of poetic images, exaggeration, or incomplete thoughts to reflect the actual way Juliette is thinking. Take this example, describing when Adam is confiding something to Juliette:

“His eyes are full of pain like I’ve never seen them before. He parts his lips. Presses them together. Changes his mind a million times until his words tumble through the air between us. … His lips are spelling secrets and my ears are spilling ink, staining my skin with his stories. … I’ve searched the world for all the right words and my mouth is full of nothing.”

Is there any question what she means? And is there any question that her manner of describing what happened conveys more than verisimilitude would do? Straight narrative would neutralize the depiction; the aesthetic montage of this scene evokes the emotion and intensity of the moment.

In my opinion, Mafi’s use of sensorial allusions lends an enhanced tonal range to her words, and thus helps breach the gap between the reader and the text, and expand the limitations of textual realism.

In addition, this story employs a most interesting trope. Because Juliette has not been able to touch anyone or be touched her whole life, she has been avoided and reviled, and is starving for affection and the touch of another human being. The only relationships she could have were with characters in books:

“I lived love and loss through stories threaded in history; I experienced adolescence by association. My world is one interwoven web of words, stringing limb to limb, bone to sinew, thoughts and images all together. I am a being comprised of letters, a character created by sentences, a figment of imagination formed through fiction.”

But when Juliette finds out that miraculously there are those who can touch her (maybe those that feel love toward her?), she is reborn:

“My knees are knocking together and my heart is beating so fast I don’t understand why it’s still working. He’s kissing away the pain, the hurt, the years of self-loathing, the insecurities, the dashed hopes for a future I always pictured as obsolete. … The intensity of our bodies could shatter these glass walls.”

As I argued above, these passages that are not strictly dispassionate reporting help us understand Juliette’s astonishment over the sensations of intimate contact, in the only terms she has known until this time:

“. . .I’m licked by a million flames of wanting so desperate I can hardly inhale. He’s a hot bath, a short breath, 5 days of summer pressed into 5 fingers writing stories on my body.”

His lips are at my ear and he says nothing at all, but I melt until I’m a handful of hot butter dripping down his body. I want to eat every minute of this moment.”

Other reviewers have complained about the slow pace of Juliette’s physical relationship once she discovers she can be touched, but given the fact that even a stroke on her arm, or holding her hand, is a momentous and exciting new sensation for her, I didn’t find the pacing inappropriate or unrealistic.

Finally, there is criticism with the fact that, especially in the final section of the book, there is too much resemblance to X-Men, and an unwelcome mixing of the genres of dystopia and the paranormal. The X-Men, for those unfamiliar with them, are a superhero team made up of both men and women, created by Marvel Comics. They possess special powers because of radiation exposure. A Professor Xavier takes it upon himself to train the X-Men to use their powers for the good of humanity. While indeed there is some likeness, comics are designed to provide a different type of gratification than prose; there is a long distance between a “similar idea” used in a comic, and a book’s nuance, backstory, character development, reflection, elaboration of emotion, dialogue, and so on.

Evaluation: I thought this first installment of a trilogy showed creativity, a lovely depiction of young romance, and a nice exploration of different kinds of family, love, and friendship. Although this is a dystopia, there is less emphasis on world-building and more on how a girl defined as an abomination by others learns how to feel good about herself. And there’s enough steaminess in this book to keep you warm until the next installments appear.

Rating: 4/5

Note: Film rights have been optioned for this series.

Published by HarperCollins, 2011

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12 Responses to Review of “Shatter Me” by Tahereh Mafi

  1. nymeth says:

    You make such good points about narrative voice and point of view and how they affect how we respond to a story. I hadn’t stopped to consider this before, but I also react far more positively to a fragmented narrative style when the story is told in the first person.

  2. Amanda says:

    I really enjoyed this one, but I did think some of the “steamy” scenes were a bit overdone especially when characters were dying, half-unconscious, or in a panic at being chased. It just didn’t seem the appropriate time for them to get all hot and bothered, and that lessened their actual steamy moments for me.

    • You know, actually, I think that made them more realistic. I think the intensity of adrenaline “leaks” over to other areas. When you read love stories set in WWII, for example, or even in the concentration camps, they are always more intense. I think it’s sort of the heightened awareness of being alive juxtaposed with the fear that you soon might not be, and it adds passion to your passion, so to speak!

  3. Alyce says:

    Well you already know how much I hated this book. 🙂 To me it all came across as ridiculous hyperbole as everything was shattering her and her world and her emotions. While that may be true to life when it comes to how teenagers are – the main character and the writing style both annoyed me to no end.

  4. sagustocox says:

    Sounds like you really enjoyed this one and you bring up valid points about the differences between comics and novels.

  5. zibilee says:

    I have to admit that the sections that you quoted sounded interesting, but I am not sure if it would bother me if this type of writing went on at length, or if I would gain a deeper understanding of the character and her issues. I guess the only way for me to find out is to read the book for myself and see what I think of it! This was a particularly stunning review, and you make your points very clearly and without judgement. I loved reading this post! Now on to find the book!

  6. Jenny says:

    This sounds…embarrassingly sort of like stories I wrote when I was about fourteen. It sounds good! but also like reading it would bring back highly embarrassing memories that I could not easily escape from.

  7. Staci@LifeintheThumb says:

    Wow…that’s a very high rating from you. I like that it will have a movie out too…..I just may be tempted to pick this one up!

  8. Jenners says:

    I could imagine if you’ve never been touched before that you’d have to take it slow or you’d be overwhelmed. Sounds like a better than average one. Not sure about that cover though!

  9. Great review. I’m even tempted to pick this one up now.

  10. bookworm1858 says:

    Personally I thought their physical relationship moved too fast and it was boring. I much preferred when Warner was on the scene as well as the ending-the X-Men can be exciting and I liked it!

  11. Sara says:

    Shatter Me is one of those books that I couldn’t wait to read. Not only has it been incredibly hyped online, but it has an incredibly compelling concept and a great blurb that screams “Read me!” Being touted as the Hunger Games meets X-men, Shatter Me boasted some of the most unique marketing I’ve ever seen for a YA novel, despite its unknown author and not-incredibly-compelling cover. Being the dystopian nerd that I am, I was completely pulled in by the incredible blurb and was beyond exciting for this title.

    Shatter Me was strangely difficult for me to get into.. Firstly, Juliette spends much of the first half of the novel being completely obedient to the horrible regime that locked her away and seemed completely resigned to her terrible fate. It also doesn’t help that she spends far too much time feeling sorry for herself, calling herself a “monster” and dripping with angst. There were times I wanted to tell her to just get over it. Thankfully, throughout the novel Juliette’s adventures help to meld her into a stronger, better person who is more confident and empowered.

    I’ve also read some interesting reviews that have discussed how much they loved the writing style in Shatter Me. I’m not sure I like it -in fact, I was torn for much of the book. Most of the writing is done in stream-of-conscious style that really gets into Juliette’s head, but left me out of breath by the end of most sentences. It didn’t seem that polished or crisp to me. Again, this did get better as the book went on, but I wouldn’t rave about the writing style here. However, some sentences here were amazing emotional gems that really were beautiful.

    I wouldn’t call Shatter Me the best dystopian novel I’ve read this year, but it’s still worth reading. It’s certainly something different in the genre with a unique style approach that’s unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Recommended for fans of dystopian romance.

    Have a nice day,
    Sara

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