Title: Black Box
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: YA Realistic Fiction
Number of Pages: 176
Okay, this book wasn’t on my high-priority list (I wanted something short to read while holed up in a hotel) but it was way better than I expected it to be. Black Box is a YA novel about a girl who’s sister has severe depression and the illness’ effects on the whole family. I usually prefer for the book to be narrated by the person with the mental illness themselves but the author still did a good job handling difficult subject matter. I expected a pretty basic ‘problem novel’ but it was a lot more raw and visceral than I expected. It also wasn’t afraid to show how devastating depression can really be.
When Elena’s older sister Dora suffers a mental breakdown and is committed to a mental hospital, she tries to hold the family together but she feels completely lost. She meets a guy named Jimmy who has personal experience with the illness Dora is going through, and he warns Elena that the mental hospital she’s being kept in is infamous for over-medicating it’s patients. Elena wants her fun sister back and for her family to be okay again, but Dora has retreated into herself to the point of almost being catatonic and nothing seems to help.
My favorite character was Jimmy because he wasn’t your usual ‘sensitive guy who helps girl with her problems’ type of character. Even though he and Elena had romantic feelings for each other that wasn’t a big part of the story, and I liked how his behavior was realistic as a teenage boy but he was also wise beyond his years in some ways. I don’t know if this was the author’s intention but even though I have a variety of mental health problems (OCD, depression, Bipolar characteristics) I ended up running out of sympathy for Dora at a certain point.
I didn’t blame her for having depression but it really made me mad how she manipulated her younger sister. She obviously wasn’t in her right mind but her behavior was still so callous and infuriating. I kind of wish Dora had been more sympathetic but at the same time I can respect that that was just her character.
Even though a lot of stories about mental illness end with clean-cut unrealistically happy endings (a new medication suddenly works wonders, the person snaps out of it, love conquers all) Black Box ends on a note of ambiguity, but not one that left me hanging or made me feel cheated. The truth is that nobody knows if things are going to get better and stay that way and mental illness is often something that effects people throughout their entire lives, so it seems fitting that the book ends with only a fragile sense of hope.