I’ve always been wary of reviewers who call authors ‘ambitious’. It seems like a potentially back-handed compliment; like, ambitious but didn’t succeed? Ambitious in the evil stab-you-in-the-back way?
I must call Only Ever Always ambitious. And I mean ambitious in try-anything, why-the-hell-not way. Because this is a novel that combines first, third, AND second-person narratives, and that’s pretty ambitious. And outrageous to even suggest. What’s awesome is that, although I found the first few shifts in perspectives a bit disconcerting, it most definitely works.
Russon gives us two different worlds, two sides of the same coin in many ways, where – to push the analogy perhaps too far – one side has been subjected to normal wear and tear, but the other side has been used much, much harder. In the first world is Claire, living a very recognisable life with recognisable griefs – no less grief for being recognisable, of course. In the second is Clara, living in a world where medicine is hard to find and four walls for one room is unusual, but still with its recognisable elements: powerful people pulling strings, and small people getting stuffed around. Somehow, Claire’s and Clara’s paths come within reach of each other… and things change.
The narrative structure is one of the most striking things about this book; it’s only 157 pages long, but those changes in POV are dramatic and confronting and, well, striking. And effective; to be in the position of a character and telling the story one moment, to having your story told at you, to then being only an observer – it works, at this length anyway, to make the characters and their stories all the more enticing and compelling. This would probably have been the case anyway, because setting Claire’s grief against Clara’s struggle to survive and the conjunctions between their worlds makes for a really engaging plot. And the character of the two girls – their similarities and differences – made them very engaging characters, too; Claire in particular was believable, with her attitudes towards her family and beloved objects.
Finally, let me say that this is a really interesting cross-over of fantasy and science fiction. The multiple-worlds thing can be either a fantasy or SF trope. The dystopic world that Clara inhabits makes this, I think, more of a science fiction than a fantasy, but really that’s splitting hairs. It could be read as either. And it’s brilliant either way.