A Beginner's Guide to Living, by Lia Hills

She looks good for a corpse. Except she never wore green eye shadow, was never this still. Her ribcage has been cracked open-you can’t see anything, it’s all been cleaned up, but I can imagine them beneath her dress, the tracks of stitches that will never heal. Some doctor thrust his hand inside her chest, reached in and touched her heart. It must affect your view of love. It didn’t work, of course – her heart refused to obey his hands. Bit gung ho, my dad reckoned, breaking her open when there was no longer a chance. But, it’s worth it, isn’t it?

When Will’s mother dies suddenly, Will’s life is in turmoil. He’s seventeen and in his final year of high school. His final exams are looming, but he can’t focus on study when he’s busy trying to make meaning out of life. Nor does the fact that he fell in love at his mum’s wake help the situation. Taryn is supportive of his problems, but the complications of sex and love add to the confusion.

The Beginner’s Guide to Living is a finely tuned exploration of grief, family breakdown, first love, and a quest for meaning. Told in Will’s first person voice, and punctuated with texts and messages between Will and Taryn, as well as photographs, and quotes from philosophers and poets, the reader travels with Will as he grieves for his mother and tries to find a reason for living. We also witness the differing grieving styles of his father, who is drifting, and his older brother, who is in denial.

Author Lia Hills is a poet, and this is much in evidence in her beautiful prose. Like a verse novel, there is focus only on important scenes, with transitions marked by breaks or changes to the messaging format. In other places chapter endings and transitions are marked with Will’s questions, which he writes in his notebook.

This is an outstanding novel for teens and deserves to be read.

The Beginner's Guide to Living

The Beginner’s Guide to Living, by Lia Hills
Text Publishing, 2009

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