Review: If This Is Home by Kristine Scarrow
When her mom is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Jayce searches for her estranged father, hoping he can fix everything.
Jayce Loewen has had to take on a lot of responsibility over the years. Her single mom works two jobs and long hours, leaving Jayce in charge of her four-year-old sister most of the time. When her mom is diagnosed with cancer, Jayce decides to track down her long-absent father in the hope that he will be able to make everything okay again.
Looking for her dad was one thing, but when she actually finds him, Jayce is in for a real shock. When everything in her life seems to be going wrong, Jayce has to figure out who her family really is, and how to live with the possibility of losing the person she loves most.
Canadian author Kristine Scarrow’s sophomore young adult novel, If This Is Home, is a contemporary story covering everything from terminal illness, complex teen friendships, sibling love and difficult family history. Taking place in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Scarrow’s compact novel embraces much of what I personally love about Canadian YA: the overwhelmingly fluid, uncluttered, quiet yet potent writing; rooted protagonists and secondary characters that read as genuine and free of veneer; and the presentation of unidealized concepts of teenagers and ‘the teenage years’.
In If This Is Home, we follow the first-person narrative of sixteen year old Jayce Loewen- known as J.J.- as she and her four year-old sister Joelle deal with beyond devastating news: their mother is sick with lung cancer. A tight-knit family of three, with a long-absent father and long-estranged grandparents, J.J.’s mom has been her everything. When a doctor gently states an unspeakable prognosis, J.J. is overwhelmed but determined that she and Joelle stay strong and stay together. In the midst of high school chaos with her less-than-considerate best friend, and worried about what might happen if they lose the only parent they’ve ever known and had, J.J. goes in search of her father. With the help of a boy she meets in detention, a teen named Kurt, J.J.’s life begins a complicated roller coaster of major revelations and disappointments.
In a plot move I really appreciate, Scarrow grows the relationship between J.J. and Kurt as platonic and heartfelt. Perhaps due to the more serious nature of the crux of the story- that of J.J.’s intense love and protectiveness for her sister and mom and the threat of it being torn apart- Scarrow decided to keep that story element more neutral. Arguably a more unconventional route to take in a teen novel, yet one that works so well here with the direction the story takes. Scarrow also writes and develops the relationship between J.J. and her mom and sister, and- later- another family member very well. I would have appreciated more by way of introduction and background to J.J. herself, Kurt (I feel he was introduced and then suddenly so involved with the family), and more about the Loewen’s family history. Certain aspects of the story came across as rushed or a little surprising, or in need of elucidation: as a whole, If This Is Home is absolutely moving and interesting, but I feel as though more detail would have been of benefit to add even further richness and depth to the story.
Overall, If This Is Home is a moving read, deftly written, propelled by a solid, well-written protagonist. As noted above, I would have liked more exposition about Kurt, as well as background exploration into J.J.’s mom and grandmother to add more foundation to the story, but in all, I truly enjoyed this read. Readers who enjoy contemporary Canadian YA lit, or readers who enjoy authors such as Susin Nielsen, Robin Stevenson or Sarah N. Harvey (all write so beautifully on family and serious subject matters), might especially appreciate this lovely book. Scarrow has published one YA title prior to If This Is Home called Throwaway Girl; it is one title I’ve seen in local bookshops and am now inspired to pick up.
I received a copy of this title courtesy of Dundurn Press in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.