“People warn you not to stare at the sun, she thinks, but it’s so much sky that hurts.”
Tiny Mite is an imaginative 8 year old girl, living with her mother and grandmother in rural South Dakota. She is rambunctious and clever and lives in her own world. Her teacher thinks her imagination is a problem. Truth be told, so does her mother. But her grandmother and great Aunt see things differently.
Velvet, or Mimi, as Tiny Mite calls her, is living a life not entirely her own. Tiny Mite’s father left, after she had broken up with her high school sweetheart. And being a single mother in a small town was never the life she imagined living. She had dreams. Big, beautiful dreams. Dreams that always seem just out of reach.
So Velvet makes a choice. A choice that we see unfold from the beginning, but aren’t quite sure what it means. A choice that reveals itself from the end, showing us the moment of collision in the present tense narration.
I loved how moving the story forward from one perspective but backwards from another, only to have them intersect was brilliant. We were able to simultaneously watch the consequences while also understanding the thought process leading up to that momentous decision. Which, I think gave Velvet more sympathy than she would have otherwise gained. It is a choice that from the beginning is impossible to understand, but Warren gives us as much understanding as possible.
There is a lot of empathy in this narration. It is a book about family, and how complicated that can be. But it is also a book about forgiveness. Not simply if Clea, who refuses to use the name Tiny Mite since the morning of Velvet’s monumental decision, will forgive Velvet, but if they all can forgive themselves.
The entire first half of the novel is this alternating narration. But the second half is where we get into the aftermath. We fast forward in time, to a now 14 year old Clea. A girl who hates her mother. Who refuses to accept anything tied to her mother, and chooses instead to wear her dead grandfathers clothing. She is an outcast at school and surrounded by memories she hates at home.
Her one refuge becomes Jared, a boy at school even more dejected and rejected than she is.
Clea works her way through school. Forging a friendship with Jared that gives her a new perspective on her family, on her life. He helps her see that maybe there is a road to freedom, through forgiving Velvet.
I love complicated stories where decisions are more complex than right and wrong. Where apologies only go so far, and emotions run deep throughout the narration. Warren does a fantastic job giving us just enough perspective from the eyes and minds of those surrounding Clea and Velvet, that we can see a more holistic picture. We can see the pain and heartache that comes with love. Any sort of love.
It is easy to be empathetic to Clea. She goes from a confident child, who lives in a richly inventive world. She is funny and reading her explanation of things, or how she rationalizes the world to makes sense around her is a delight. It’s probably one of my favorite things about this novel.
So, it is even more heartbreaking when she breaks entirely away from that rich world. When her heart literally breaks and she tries to piece it back together by discarding everything from before. Warren does an impressive job with this in her dividing of the novel. There is clearly a before and an after.
But even more worth noting, is how Warren actually persuades you to feel empathy for Velvet as well. It isn’t as much, and it isn’t as easy, but it is there all the same. She is a victim of her choices as well as Clea, and because of that, probably feels the consequences more deeply than Clea. Which, I know, sounds unreasonable and unbelievable, but still true.
For a debut novel, hell, for any novel, managing all the moving pieces and pulling off this complicated narration is impressive. It would be very easy to lose track of a plot point, or leave a character underdeveloped. It would be very easy to confuse the reader if each sentence, each chapter, and each section wasn’t tightly woven and executed with precision. Yet, Warren does execute her narration and you aren’t lost in the alternating perspectives, or confused by a change in time or narration. If anything you are left wanting to know more, wanting to understand more with each page turned.
There is a profound understanding of how complicated our lives can become, and how we can become defined by our decisions in that life. It’s an interesting question, do our decisions define who we are, or do we define those decisions?
Family is complicated. And complex. People within these families are flawed and don’t always make the best decisions. This is life. Warren has given us an honest look at that inner dynamic, and makes us think about what we have, and what we think we want. At the core of this book is the question, do you have to sacrifice yourself for love? The answer is surprisingly complex, and I’m sure will change for everyone.
This book is fantastic for a book club. Each character, each choice, each pivotal moment of plot sets the stage for interesting discussion and dialogue. I think complex characters are always good for discussion, and Warren gives us complex characters in spades.
I immensely enjoyed reading Not the Only Sky. My heart broke, and was woven back together again. I laughed, and cried, smiled and frowned. I fell in love with Clea, and Jared, and Luvie and Bee. I even came to understand and forgive Velvet. A remarkable book. I cannot wait to read what Warren writes next!
Thank you to NetGalley and Black & White Publishing for the opportunity to read this amazing book! I received this book on NetGalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.