May’s Book of the Month: Release, Patrick Ness

A photograph of a paperback copy of Release by Patrick Ness.

Where to start with Patrick Ness’ Release? I picked it up hoping to inject some young adult (YA) fiction into my monthly reviews. Having read some of his previous YA books, I was expecting another dystopian setting like the ones featured in More Than This and The Rest of Us Just Live Here. But Release defied my expectations, leaving me wondering what genre I could even class it as?

Release is definitely short and sweet. At just over 250 pages long, Ness had no choice but to dive straight into the plot. This was a welcome change of pace from some of the more ponderous books I have recommended so far. The story follows Adam Thorn, a seventeen-year-old who lives with his super-religious parents and older brother Marty in their small and suffocating town. His relationship with them is extremely fractured; largely because of his shunning of their religion and their refusal to acknowledge or accept his sexuality.

The bookkicks off with Adam listing everything he needs to do before his ex-boyfriend’s leaving party that night. Each chapter is devoted to one of these many tasks meaning that the story takes place over the course of that one day. We see Adam carry out errands for his mother, go running, work a shift in a local store, spend time with his best friend, Angela, visit his boyfriend, Linus, and help his father at the church, before at last heading to Enzo’s leaving party. This structure was a stroke of genius, turning a single day into a carefully paced plot. We get to see Adam interacting with the other characters throughout his day, whilst also viewing his previous relationships with them through his memories of the past few months and years.

Most of the book focuses on Adam and, had the chapters about him been the whole novel, Release would have been a straightforward coming-of-age narrative. However, interspersed between Adam’s story was another – a tale about a spirit rising from the lake. Whilst I should have seen this coming (the blurb reads ‘way across town, a ghost has risen from the lake’), it still somehow surprised me, and I found this story difficult to engage with. Whenever I was reading the chapters about the spirit, I was desperate to get back to Adam, particularly when the narrative switch happened at a pivotal moment in his story. Also, although characters in Adam’s life alluded to this second, smaller tale, it seemed quite disjointed from the main plot. I understood that like Adam’s, the story of the spirit was one of release, but beyond this I couldn’t see its relevance. As many other reviewers have noted, I think Ness would have been better keeping these two stories separate, perhaps allowing him to dedicate more time to the spirit’s journey and the world associated with her and her companion.

On the whole though, this more fantastical element did not detract too much from Adam’s tale. We still got to know him as a character very well throughout the book. Despite the events of the novel unfolding over just one day, we see him change in this time. He matures and grows and even lets down some of the walls he has built in his relationships. Adam has more to deal with in these hours than any teenager should and as a character his reactions to them felt authentic. He grapples with self-hatred rooted in his relationship with his family, a self-hatred which is only fuelled by the events of the day. Yet there are lessons to be learnt from this, for both Adam and the reader. He realises that he does not deserve to feel this way, and whilst there are people around him who love and accept him, he needs to accept himself if he is ever going to feel truly happy.

Release is described as Ness’ most personal novel yet (although he does write a disclaimer that his ‘father, for example, is not in these pages’). By pouring himself into the book, he has created something authentic and beautiful. In particular, his descriptions of first love and first loss felt honest and striking; the heartfelt descriptions evocated a few truly stunning moments. Ness articulates the idea of unrequited love so perfectly when Adam reflects on how his ex-boyfriend treated him, musing that “it was so much easier to be loved than to have to do any of the desperate work of loving”. There are also many honest, and beautiful, descriptions of sex – something which is rarely depicted truthfully in YA novels (and much less in those centring on LGBTQ+ characters). Another thing I really valued was that Release is not just a story of heartache and fear. Ness creates meaningful relationships for his characters, with a real emphasis on the idea of ‘chosen-family’. Despite Adam’s horrible circumstances, he has some incredible people around him. His boyfriend Linus is so gentle and understanding, and his best friend Angela clearly means the world to him. Alongside some semi-predictable character changes, there were also unexpected ones, with some characters redeeming themselves by the end of the novel, and others very much not.

In Release, Ness has created another powerful novel, but one I perhaps did not fully understand. He stated that Release drew inspiration from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Judy Blume’s Forever, and I think he executes the incorporation of these structural elements well. However, whilst I do see that without the second story, the book may have needed something extra to stand out from the crowd, the tale of the spirit fell a little flat. Despite this, Ness’ writing is so beautiful it still made the story worth reading. But, if it doesn’t sound like Release would be for you, pick up one of his others. Having been reminded of his effortless style of writing, many of Ness’ other books have now made their way firmly onto my to-read list.

By Charlotte Rose