Title: Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe
Author: Preston Norton
Release Date: June 5th, 2018
Genre(s): Young Adult, Contemporary, Speculative
Page Count: 416 (hardback)
Life is more than just existing. And it’s more than just a door with death and nothingness on the other side. Life is a series of doors. Every moment, every decision, is a door. And by opening them and stepping into the unknown, we are expanding and illuminating a world that we never knew existed. But if we never open those doors? If we stay put? We’ll be living in a world of walls. Don’t you want to know what’s on the other side?
This book is a 400-page love letter to life. It’s like a rib-crushing hug that says, “I believe in you. Whatever you’re going through now, I believe you can push through it and come out on the other side stronger.” Ridiculous, witty, heartwarming, and full of wisdom dressed up in laugh-out-loud–sometimes over-the-top– humour, Preston Norton has written an indelible story of friendship, love, and what it means to live.
Cliff Hubbard is going through the worst year of his 16-year old life. On top of dealing with highschool bullying (he’s nicknamed “Neanderthal” for being 6’6 and 250 pounds), he has to face ongoing abuse from his father and the never-ending grief of losing his brother to suicide a year ago. Then one day, his arch-nemesis Aaron Zimmerson approaches him after a near-death experience and claims that he has met God (who inexplicably sounds like Morgan Freeman) and that God has given him a To-Do List of sorts. One that would make Happy Valley High a much better place. And guess whose help he needs?
First and foremost, the prose is absolute perfection. Humour, the kind that has you devolving into helpless laughter, is incredibly hard to nail. What’s even harder is to combine it with smart, no-nonsense wit. And what’s even harder is to transition from that humour into serious poignancy within a matter of a few sentences without it being jarring. And Norton nails that. There are so many moments that had me giggling to misty-eyed in a matter of seconds. Cliff’s narration finds the right balance of sarcasm and self-deprecation, and the metaphors and imagery he uses are inventive and so, so on-point.
“So…you don’t like the List.”
“I feel like the stupidity of the whole thing is burning a hole in my cerebral cortex. I’m trying to figure out which part is the dumbest, but the levels of stupidity for each point are so astronomical, I wonder if two of ideas bumped together, the universe might implode in a reverse Big Bang, and life as we know it would vacuum into a supermassive black hole and disappear from existence.”
The book also uses pop culture references in a way that doesn’t make me cringe, which is kind of a rarity. I’m not sure why YA contemporary writers have the idea that teenagers are these reference-spewing machines, but I figure if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it well. And Norton does it pretty damn well. My heart positively fluttered at seeing how 2001: Space Odyssey got woven into the main storyline.
I also loved the way it touches on the complexity of parent-child relationships. Cliff’s mother is a very kind, very loving woman when it comes to every aspect of his life except for one: his abusive father. With her, Norton pitches the question of how your parents can be so supportive and wonderful in certain aspects, but not so in others. And as with everything else, Cliff puts it perfectly:
“In times of peace, she was Mother of the Year. In times of war, she was a mannequin.”
So what does this make her? A bad parent? An enabler of abuse? A victim? There’s no one satisfactory answer. Part of growing up is realizing that your parents are very, painfully human, that they make very human mistakes, and that sometimes they’re just as lost as you are. And Norton explores this with pitch-perfection.
Most importantly, though, Neanderthal shines a spotlight on human potential, and the hope that there is always, always good in this world. It calls on you to embrace empathy and discard apathy. To show vulnerability and to take a chance into the unknown, the strange. I admit, there was a point where I thought to myself, “Is this a little too heavy-handed?” Then I realized, no. I don’t think there’s ever a heavy-handed way of saying that life matters–that you matter. There are scenes near the end that moved me to my core, and you can bet this is one of those books I’ll be returning to time and time again.