Sunday, November 9, 2014

Book Review: "Noggin" by John Corey Whaley

One of the things I love so much about reading is what different books do for me. Some entertain, some manipulate my emotions (this is not necessarily a negative), some teach, some infuriate, and some make me think. I love when a book surprises me and does more than I expect. Such was the case with John Corey Whaley's spectacular second novel, Noggin. I enjoyed it tremendously (despite its offbeat premise) and it really made me think.

Travis Coates was a gravely ill 16-year-old who was tired of dying, but he didn't want to keep living the way he was. He and his family agreed to participate in an experimental program in which his head (the only part of his body not riddled with the cancer that was killing him) was removed from his body and, when medical and technological advances made it possible, it would be attached to another donor's body. Deep down inside, everyone had a feeling this would never happen, but it was a good thing to imagine occurring years into the future.

One morning Travis woke up, his parents by his side, to find that his head had been reattached to another teenager's body (a better body, if anyone's counting). For Travis, it only seemed like a few hours had passed since he said goodbye to his family, his best friend, Kyle, and his girlfriend, Cate, but for everyone else, it was five years later. Five years in which so much had changed.

"I want to tell you a story about how you can suddenly wake up to find yourself living a life you were never supposed to live. It could happen to you, just like it happened to me, and you could try to get back the life you think you deserve to be living. Just like I did."

Travis has to return to his high school and repeat sophomore year. (While he should be 21, his body and his mind are still 16, and he didn't get enough credits while he was sick to become a junior.) Beyond everyone wanting to get a look at his really cool scar where they attached his head to the other boy's body, it's weird being there without Kyle and Cate, although he is able to make a new friend.

But as similar as that aspect of his life is, things are really different where Kyle and Cate are concerned, as their lives moved on, much differently than Travis would have expected. Travis can't seem to understand why they can't seem to pick things up where they left off, and runs the risk of alienating the people who matter the most to him. It's truly hard to reconcile his gratitude at being able to have another chance to live with his frustration that his life can't be the way he wants it to be.

Noggin is tremendously thought-provoking, because while the procedure that gave Travis a new lease on life is certainly difficult to grasp, it raises some interesting questions. If you thought a person you lost would come back to you, should you keep your life in a holding pattern until it was confirmed that it won't happen? What obligation do we have to those we leave behind? If this procedure existed, should it be used, or is it one step too far?

I really loved this book. I loved the fact that Travis wasn't any wiser than he was before he died, and if anything, he's more confused. I loved all of the characters and how they were flawed, just like real life. And I love the way Whaley tells a story, which is just one reason why his previous book, Where Things Come Back, was one of my favorite books of 2012.

If you can get past the procedure on which this book hinges, you'll really enjoy this, and it will move you if you've ever had to face the loss of someone you wish could still be with you. As Travis says, "It made me realize that no matter how often you see or talk to someone, no matter how much you know them or don't know them, you always fill up some space in their lives that can't ever be replaced the right way again once you leave it."

Noggin might be that way for me.

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