Impulse by Ellen Hopkins

“Pray

you could somehow stop

the uncertainty, somehow

stop the loathing,

somehow stop the pain.

Act

on your impulse

swallow the bottle,

cut a little deeper,

put the gun to your chest.”

Before you panic about that quote, I’ll explain:  it’s a description of past events, even though in the excerpt I realized it can come off as an order.  Don’t worry! It’s not as bad as you think.

Well, it’s pretty bad.  The novel takes place in Aspen Springs, a psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents.  Vanessa, Connor, and Tony have all attempted suicide, and meet in the ward.  Vanessa has bipolar disorder, like her mother, and cuts herself when she cannot cope with her emotions.  Connor, even though he looks like the perfect, all-American star student, feels isolated in his own family, as though he were an object instead of a son.  And Tony has spiraled into the depths of despair after his mentor dies of AIDS.   In the hospital, the three begin the lengthy process of sorting through years of pain and fear, searching for the combination of medication and therapy that will help them emerge into the sunlight again.

The three main characters take turns relating their own experiences in the novel: the speaker is identified at the beginning of each chapter, or whenever the speaker changes.  Since the characters are all so fragile and desperately unhappy, it is (like Hopkins’ other works) a raw, harrowing novel.  I had to take frequent breaks when reading it.  The voices are so gripping that you feel them reach out of the book and suck you in.  I actually found it to be so intense as to be overwhelming.

That said, this is Ellen Hopkins.  That’s her style: she wields her words like a surgeon’s knife, slicing away at any extraneous padding in a story.  There’s no sugar-coating here, that’s for sure.  It’s an undeniably grueling read, but even as I was sickened and horrified about the experiences, feelings, and memories of the characters, there was a part of me that was able to stand back from the story and recognize the skill of the writer.

The three-voice-narrative was especially genius, I think.  Because of the emotionally intense, introspective nature of a person going through a life-threatening emotional crisis, a single narrator could telescope the story in on itself, and make the entire novel too centered around tortured ruminations of the sad mind.  But with three different characters telling the story, Hopkins anchors the story, and keeps it from being an unbroken personal manifesto of misery.

Oh, what can I say here?  The topics are rough: sexual abuse, drugs, self-injury, abortion, and suicide, all described in graphic, but poetic language.  However, Hopkins takes this dark side of the self and humanizes it, makes it understandable.  She also refuses to tie up the story with a neat “happily ever after” bow, too, which is something I really appreciate.  One gets the feeling that, to Hopkins, her audience is street-smart enough not to swallow a syrupy ending.  There’s this underlying feeling of respect for her readers: she speaks to them as though they were adults.  I think this one is definitely worth a read.  (And the ALA thinks so, too: this book is an ALA Best Book winner!)

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.ellenhopkins.com/

Hopkins, Ellen. Impulse.  New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007. 666 pp.  Ages 16 and up.  And while your 16-year-old is reading it, stick around for the tough questions that may come up.

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