It seems as though the books that grab hold of us the tightest are the ones that are the hardest to write about. This is certainly true of Exchange of Heart, Darren Groth's newest novel for young adults. Even though I'm just a plain old adult, without the blissful 'young' prefixed to the front, this book sits with me in a way few contemporary books have. And I've wrestled for some time with how to write about it because it just feels so much, and it's hard to disentangle myself from the story.
To begin with, Exchange of Heart is set predominantly in Brisbane, and books populated by familiar places and landmarks and journeys are like new friends who instantly become old friends. Then, too, its main character, Munro, is wrestling with an anxiety that is hard to name and, although my experience is different to Munro's, I know this battlefield all too well. Most heart-squeezing of all, though, is the fact that Munro is mired in grief after the death of his younger sister Evie, who has Down Syndrome.
My youngest brother has Down Syndrome, and, ever since he joined our family, I have had these occasional dreams of terrible natural disasters threatening him: volcanoes spewing lava, tsunamis sweeping over everything, earthquakes upending the ground we're struggling to walk on. Always I find myself urgently reaching out to keep hold of his hand, to grab on to him and not let go. Even in my subconscious mind, losing my little brother is one of the most incomprehensibly awful things that could ever happen.
So to see a character grappling with this reality was like a beautiful, heartbreaking kick to the stomach. Munro's grief and confusion is tangible, a living thing that haunts him, taunts him, and threatens to overwhelm him, to rob him of the people who love him best and to sabotage any attempt to begin again. Blessedly, these people also refuse to let him stand alone in the depths of his grief, and it is through their love -- faithful, hard love that patiently makes its way through the walls of trauma Munro has built up around him -- that Munro can begin to see the possibility of healing.
Of course, it takes an international journey and a rag-tag gang of Australians to begin dismantling those walls, and each fresh character bursts into the story like a happy surprise. These are not perfect characters, but they are good ones, drawn in a way that doesn't make a novelty of their personalities or disabilities but, rather, honours them. This book is disability-positive in a very joyful, honest way. It's also therapy-positive and family-positive. In fact, even though it will make your heart squeeze up inside your rib cage, reading this book is a positive experience in itself. And now, after all my wrestling, this isn't even a real review -- just a slightly frantic whirl of feelings -- but I'm glad this book exists and I hope you read it.
Exchange of Heart
Published July 31, 2017 by Random House Australia