Author: Kimberly Sabatini
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication Date: October 30, 2012
Source: Publisher for review via YA Books Central
Description from Goodreads:
Experience the afterlife in this lyrical, paranormal debut novel that will send your heart soaring.
When Elliot finds herself dead for the third time, she knows she must have messed up, big-time. She doesn’t remember how she landed in the afterlife again, but she knows this is her last chance to get things right.
Elliot just wants to move on, but first she will be forced to face her past and delve into the painful memories she’d rather keep buried. Memories of people she’s hurt, people she’s betrayed…and people she’s killed.
As she pieces together the secrets and mistakes of her past, Elliot must find a way to earn the forgiveness of the person she’s hurt most, and reveal the truth about herself to the two boys she loves…even if it means losing them both forever.
First Sentence: "My body smacked the water."
Sabatini's vision of the afterlife enthralled my imagination completely. She combines familiar concepts into something fresh and compelling. The concept of reincarnation has always called to me far more than most religious ideas, so I loved that Sabatini included that. She also put her own spin on it with the idea that, on a soul's third failure to reach some sort of enlightenment and whatever next step that brings, the soul's memories are wiped. This forces delving, a slow recapturing of the previous life's memories that allows for deeper reflection and analysis, removing preconceptions and errors kept in ordinary memory. Delving is also a group experience, not just a personal one, so that others can try to help the Third Timers figure out what has kept them from moving on.
Another fascinating element of this is the bodiless nature of the characters. They are all technically embodied throughout the book, but they have not always worn that body. In her first life, Elliot and her best friend Julia were twin brothers named Arty and Jim. The souls simply continue to wear the body and use the name of their last life until they reenter the stream to a new one. The souls can idenitfy one another by their scent that remains constant from body to body. Though she occasionally comments on appearances, the personality obviously factors in much more in how others seem to her.
The other main delightful quirk about the afterlife is the ability to manifest the mind's landscape physically. Thoughts can be created, from a lake to a mountain to a book the soul wants to read. Within the Obmil, this afterlife, the body cannot be injured and seems to have so much power. Not gonna lie, I would want to stay there and would try to get my friends to stay too. Of course, when you have a bad day, you literally will be stuck in a storm cloud of your own devising, but that's a small price to pay for the perks.
Alright, now that I'm done fangirling over the world building, I should probably discuss the plot a bit, shouldn't I? At the outset, I was a bit concerned that the book was heading for a stereotypical romance plot line: a rift between two best friends, a beautiful boy she feels inextricably drawn to (Oliver), a hot, angry boy who also seems to be part of her past (Trevor), and a love square between the four. Thankfully, this got cleared up pretty quickly and the characters did what was right for them, rather than conforming to tropes. Though the emotions become intense alarmingly quickly, it helped set the scene and conveyed the confusion Elliot felt being confronted with people who remembered her that she could not yet recall.
Elliot is a great character. She doesn't kick butt. She's sometimes weak. She's selfish, and sometimes a bully. All of that makes her who she is, and, even at her worst, I still felt for her and got her motivations. She manages to feel utterly real, especially in her struggle to find a sense of self, and her blithe unawareness of how she can steamroll others. Elliot wants to move on, hates having come back as a Third Timer, but she fears delving into her memories. Obviously, death in one's teen years doesn't signify a happy story.
The book alternates between the fantasy lanscape of Obmil and flashbacks to the characters' memories of their previous lives. This allows Sabatini to confront both gritty real life issues and psychological struggles. The flashbacks also explain why the characters feel the way they do about one another in the beginning, often for reasons even they don't know. This storytelling method adds a lot of tension to the tale and kept me flipping pages.
I dearly love Trevor. Oliver may be the nice one, though he shows some darker moods too (which I like), but I always have been drawn to the moody ones. Watching Trevor open up is delightful and he definitely puts hummingbirds in my stomach, let me tell you. What I love best is the way he changes the slogan on his t-shirt to match his emotions, generally with a smartass comment.
Ending books about the afterlife is generally pretty tricky, more so than with other genres perhaps. Sabatini's ending worked perfectly, I felt. I didn't anticipate quite the direction it would go in, and I really appreciated that. Nothing's wrapped up exactly, but it feels complete.
Kimberly Sabatini's debut blew me away and I know Touching the Surface is a book that I will be rereading. For a book with similar themes that does some wholly different things, check out Level 2 by fellow Apocalypsie Lenore Appelhans.
"'Damn it, Elliot, do you ever make kissing easy?' he said, cupping his nose.
'Maybe you should learn not to be such a tease and get to it a little quicker,' I shot back.
'So, I've got to get to the kissing before you start thinking too hard about something else?'
'Something like that,' I said, reaching to check his nose. He winced.
'You'll heal in a minute,' I said with a smirk."