Joseph Barone’s existential novel, Bebette, tells the story of Lily, a 12-year-old girl with a rare form of blood cancer, as she grapples with her own mortality. After her family’s move from the allegorically named town of Reverie to the equally metaphorical town of Salvation, Lily develops a relationship with an imaginary friend named Bebette.
Bebette is a 5-year old child who looks like Alice in Wonderland but who speaks with the knowledge, insight, and wisdom of a much older person. The conversations held between Bebette and Lily are not those you would expect to encounter between two children, as they discuss philosophies for living, the workings of their inner minds, and allegories for mortality. It’s easy to forget that the protagonists are so young, but their age is extremely important to the novel, as it is core to the book’s charm.
Bebette is a novel that is constructed around death, grief, and life-threatening illness, yet it is uplifting from beginning to end. The use of such a young narrator means that life and loneliness are seen from a pure, uncorrupted, and childishly optimistic point of view. Barone handles some very deep and difficult issues, which many an author would shy away from, with an honest sensitivity that leaves you feeling hopeful, and the child protagonists are the key to this. Everything is witnessed through the eyes of people who are unable to understand the ultimate significance of the moments around them. This results in a novel that is hopeful and inspiring, rather than one that could be dark and depressing.
The writing in a novel is quietly beautiful. There are some really heartwarming passages that have been carefully described to capture a tiny moment that might have gone unnoticed and unremembered in ordinary life. As so much of the novel is written in allegory, it does seem that the book is going to end in a dreamlike world, with no real resolution, but thankfully the reader is awarded some degree of closure.
While the language and plot of the novel are highly accomplished, it is hard to ignore the shortcomings in form. It is difficult to tell whether the short paragraphs throughout the novel (the longest comprising two or three sentences) were an active authorial choice, or the work of an inexperienced writer. The pages are broken up into ten paragraphs or more, even if there is no real reason to separate out the sentences. The result is to dramatically speed up the pace of the novel, which becomes distracting, as the text itself does not call to be read with such haste. Though this construction could be read as a kind of prose poetry, the layout detracts from the book’s shining prose, rather than adding a layer of meaning, and it is a great shame as a very basic edit would have resolved this.
Overall, this is a thoughtful and beautifully written novel, existential in its scope, with whole chapters that explore various topics of light philosophy, inviting the reader to pause for reflection, and making Bebette a richly rewarding read.
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