Review: We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra
Source: Hardcopy courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada. Thank you!
Publication: May 14, 2019 by Penguin Teen Canada/Penguin Random House Canada
When Walt Whitman fan Jonathan Hopkirk and football player Adam “Kurl” Kurlansky are partnered together in a weekly pen pal assignment, they don’t expect to get much out of it. With each letter, however, the two are led deeper into a friendship that eventually grows into love. But faced with homophobia, bullying, and devastating family secrets, Jonathan and Kurl must struggle to hold on to their relationship—and each other.
This gripping, gorgeously written novel celebrates love and life with engaging characters and stunning language, making it perfect for fans of Jandy Nelson, Nina LaCour, and David Levithan.
Canadian writer and professor Sarah Henstra won the Governor General’s Literary Award in fiction for The Red Word and made her debut with the young adult historical novel Mad Miss Mimic. Henstra makes a return here to young adult fiction with her highly-praised contemporary novel We Contain Multitudes.
“Maybe it is always like this. We are granted these tiny windows of time, these small pockets of space, where nothing else intrudes. Maybe that’s all we can ever hope to get, together. And maybe, just, maybe, it will be enough.”
Written entirely via letters, We Contain Multitudes details the inextricable bond and relationship that is formed between Jonathan “Jo” Hopkirk and Adam “Kurl” Kurlansky after they are assigned as writing partners for a high school pen pal project. At the onset, both Jonathan and Kurl are curious about their pairing: what will Kurl- a seemingly gruff, intimidating senior and football player- and Jonathan- a quiet, often bullied sophomore, with an unquenchable passion for Walt Whitman- write about in their letters? Even though Kurl notes in an early letter to Jonathan not to get his hopes up about their writing continuing, it soon turns out that Jonathan and Kurl have their entire live and life stories to not only share, but also to build up, tear apart, and change forever.
“So I think this is the thing, Jo. This is why I can’t agree with your life-begins-after-high-school-so-just-wait-it-out philosophy…It’s that now-right now, right this second- is the only actual time we’re alive. I mean our minds can live in the past or worry about the future but our bodies are only alive and feeling things right here, right now.”
As the writing back and forth between Kurl and Jo takes off, the scope and intensity of their letter contents changes. No longer strangers to one another at school, Jonathan and Kurl have now “met”; they start to know private, personal and hidden things about the other person and they begin to notice each other… to really see each other at school. The two begin to connect, first in hallways, between classes, and when Kurl comes to save Jonathan, who is openly gay, from hateful, spewing, homophobic bullies. Their connection deepens and their back-and-forth writing soon expands to cover their time spent together outside of school and with their respective families. At a few aching, aching, pivotal moments, Jonathan and Kurl shift their relationship to one that becomes something so much more; one of desire, of intensity, of sexual exploration, and of love. While the core of We Contain Multitudes falls on the relationship and love between Kurl and Jonathan, Henstra simultaneously manages multiple plot lines involving deceased parents, trauma, grief, substance abuse, PTSD, familial abuse, toxic masculinity, and rampant homophobia. At times, it is lot to unpack and the mass of topics threatens to overwhelm and divert, especially towards the last third of the novel as more betrayal and violence occur, and the promise of an unbroken, uninterrupted love between the two young men seems impossible. There is, however, a beam of hope and light- flickering as it may be at times- that does win out; a cautious hope for and belief in some kind of contented, perhaps even happy, future for our unforgettable protagonists.
A captivating and heartrending epistolary novel, We Contain Multitudes is a strong YA offering, steered beautifully by Henstra’s lyrical writing, so fluid and romantic yet impeccable and precise. Readers who have enjoyed the work of authors such as Nina LaCour, Jeff Zentner, Abdi Nazemian, or YA novels such as Meredith Russo’s Birthday, might especially find themselves enraptured by Kurl and Jonathan’s story.
I received a copy of this title courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.