A blizzard heralded Tim Macbeth's arrival to the elite Irving School, halfway through senior year. In the airport, his chance encounter with beautiful Vanessa snowballs into a tragedy. Tim's story is relayed on CD's left to Duncan, the student who inherits his dorm room. Duncan wishes to forget the role he played in last year's traumatic incident, but he can't resist listening to the CDs. Despite their Shakespearian names, this original story is not a retelling of Macbeth but rather an exploration of the narrative form of tragedy. At Irving, students write a tragedy paper senior year, and Tim promises that his story will inspire Duncan.
Tim is a wonderfully complex and sympathetic character. Born without pigment, he has physical challenges, such as a sensitivity to bright light, but his biggest problem is low self esteem. Tim assumes that being albino makes him an unlovable freak, although other than startled reactions from strangers and his lack of friends, there is no tangible evidence of prejudice in the book. I would have liked a flashback to an event that had traumatized him into being so reclusive, but his insecurities around a popular girl and his foolish behavior to impress her are generally relatable and true to teenaged boys. There is also plenty more to Tim than his disability. He's a sensitive, creative and kind person with a unique perspective on life.
I wish Duncan, the present day narrator, had been as well developed as Tim. Duncan seems to exist only as a narrative foil, reacting to Tim's story without carving out his own narrative arc. Often I had trouble marking the transition from one voice to another, but this might be a problem particular to the digital galley, which I read on my Kindle. Hopefully the final print version uses different fonts. Having Tim's voice in first person and Duncan's voice in third person meant I wasn't lost for long.
The Tragedy Paper reminded me of two other popular books, and I suspect it will do well. Using CD's to tell a story is a similar narrative device to the tapes in Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why. LaBan's novel also shared common elements with Donna Tartt's A Secret History, a favorite of mine in adult literary fiction. Both books share a gorgeous New England campus setting, a secret society, a charismatic teacher and a tragic story in the past. However, The Tragedy Paper's tragic event felt a bit anticlimactic after all the build up, perhaps in comparison to the other two books, or maybe because LaBan's story was geared to a younger audience. As such, The Tragedy Paper is appropriate for even preteens and would appeal to both boys and girls as well as adult readers of young adult fiction.
With its evocative, literary writing and true teen voice, The Tragedy Paper is an impressive debut. The cover art is gorgeous too. I'm curious to see what LaBan will write next. Disclosure: I received a free digital galley from NetGalley for review purposes.
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