Eight years ago, Caro became an only child. Her sister Hannah left home and because of their age difference, Caro doesn’t remember her a whole lot. But now Hannah’s coming back home and she’s not at all what Caro expected — she’s quiet, meek, and withdrawn, and she’s not making a great impression on her sister. Worse though, their parents are letting Hannah get away with this behavior. Her coldness further turns Caro off.
Caro’s method of dealing appears to be denial. She lies to her boyfriend about Hannah and now she’s not only frustrating him, she’s frustrating both her friends and her parents with her behavior. What should be an exciting reunion of sisters isn’t.
The Opposite of Hallelujah is Anna Jarzab’s sophomore novel, and it’s a memorable one. But before I delve into what made this book work and why it kept me hooked, let me start by saying the description is a bit misleading. It sounds much more mysterious than it is — while Caro’s sister has been gone for eight years, it wasn’t under strange circumstances. Rather, Hannah enrolled in a convent. Yes, that kind of convent. Hannah wants to be a nun.
Caro’s live a pretty good life, but it’s been a life she’s constructed of many lies. Because she grew up without Hannah, she never told anyone she had a sister. Actually, that’s not true either: Caro mentioned in elementary school that her sister had died, and that was always what people associated Caro with — a dead sister. That lie got her into huge trouble at home, and following that, she’s just chosen to ignore the sister all together. It’s when Hannah comes back, though, that Caro has to confront the fact she not only has a sister but that her sister may need her much more than she could have ever imagined.
Jarzab’s story, despite sounding like one about faith and religion, is actually about grief. Hannah’s choice in attending a convent was her means of dealing with loss and with a heavy burden of responsibility for that loss. She’s sullen and broken, has disordered eating, and she looks — by Caro’s accounts and by what we can pick up along the way — terrible. But because Caro herself is put off by Hannah, she doesn’t know why her sister is that way. The Opposite of Hallelujah isn’t only about Hannah’s grief though. It’s also about Caro’s.
By accounts of those around her, Caro is selfish. She’s not interested in learning about her sister and she’s guarded about the fact she has to put up with an adjustment at home. The thing is, Caro’s grieving the loss of everything she’s known. There’s security in being an only child for her, and having it disrupted and changed is tough. It’s made only more challenging because of Hannah’s behavior. Caro is a deeply flawed character, and she as much as admits to it. But I found her thoroughly likable because of her flaws and because, despite them, I sympathized with everything she was going through. She’s a bit impulsive and doesn’t always act in the smartest ways; however, Caro is dealing with things in a way that’s authentic to her and authentic to the story. She’s not passive.
What ends up drawing Caro into Hannah’s story is a boy: Pawal. He’s the new kid at school and it doesn’t take long for Caro and him to become close. This is the part in a lot of books where I find myself frustrated, but there’s no real secret here that Pawal is a plot device. It’s through a huge oops moment at dinner between Pawal, Caro and her parents when she must confront her sister and find out what is going on. Why she left them years ago. Why she is so withdrawn now. That’s not to say Pawal’s only role in the story is as the catalyst to making Caro interact with her sister; there’s a bigger payoff, too, in the form of a realistic, well-developed romantic relationship. It’s not guaranteed and it’s not rushed.
Like Caro, I’ve talked around the central aspect of the story. If you don’t want spoilers, jump down a paragraph. What we learn as readers is that Hannah may have been responsible for the death of a friend. It’s through Caro’s investigation — and the help of her friends — that she’s able to reconnect with the family of that girl. I can’t say I bought all of this part of the story (I had many problems with the way Sarba’s brother reacts to meeting with Caro and how he reacts to Hannah’s being back), but because I was so invested elsewhere, it was forgivable. Caro and Hannah come together over this, and Caro really begins to understand the choices her sister made in terms of attending a convent and in turning her attention toward faith. It’s her way of grieving and it’s her way of healing. It’s also her way of feeling like she can be a good person again. I wish this had been pushed a little further in the plot, but that’s where my primary challenge with the story comes: because this is Caro’s story and not Hannah’s, we’re getting Caro’s story. Caro’s far more interested in learning about her sister’s past than she is learning about what the power of faith and years at the convent have done for her healing-wise. Hannah had a fuller arc than Caro, which was why I hoped for a little more — where Hannah came through the grieving/acceptance process, Caro still had a little bit of room to finish it out when the book ended.
Hannah wrestles not only with her internal demons over this, but she also wrestles with a number of other issues. She’s struggling with eating (relating to grief, of course), and it’s arguable she’s also struggling with a bit of post traumatic stress disorder. Her choice to leave the convent brings so many feelings she’d chosen to lock down to a head. Where she’d been able to lock them away and turn to God and serving in spirit, her return home requires her to deal with things on her own. As much as faith could heal and help, there’s also an element of needing to face things straight on for Hannah. She can’t look up or ahead without accepting the things behind and inside her. This was a particularly powerful realization not only for Hannah, but even moreso for Caro.
More than once during the story, I thought a number of plot elements felt convenient. The parents, for example, were terrible communicators and I found it hard to believe never in that span of eight years would Hannah come up in conversation. It was odd Caro never cared, either. That said, because Jarzab’s writing was so strong and because she handled a number of heavy topics without ever laying a right or a wrong side down, these conveniences were easy to let go.
While there is a bit of a mystery in the book, it’s a solid contemporary title. Months after reading this, I’m still thinking about Caro and Hannah. Although The Opposite of Hallelujah clocks in at over 450 pages, it is an absorbing read — Jarzab has a handle on her story and on her characters, and she anchors them both with great references and motifs throughout (I keep thinking about the way MC Esher, physics, and The Bell Jar all weave perfectly into the greater parts of who Caro and Hannah are). Rarely do I think I’d like more of a book, especially a book already running long, but I would have read another 100 or so pages of this story to get even more out of the faith/grief experiences of both girls. In many ways, this book reminded me of Sara Zarr, especially Once Was Lost, and I think there’s a lot here fans of Zarr’s books will enjoy. I’d be comfortable handing this to younger YA readers, as well as more mature ones. Jarzab gives readers on both ends of the spectrum a lot to chew on.
The Opposite of Hallelujah is available today. Review copy received from the publisher.