Books featuring a mother with a mental illness

Book Review: Something in the world called love

Author: Sue Saliba
Publisher: Penguin (2008)
Genre: Contemporary coming of age (for a YA readership)

“When Esma moves into 22 Starling Street, she knows she’s come to the right place. A place to become someone new. A place to belong.

As the seasons change, she finds herself falling deeper and deeper in love. But not in the way she expects …”

Red cover, with white vines in the two bottom corners and top left. Something in the world called love is written in cursive white text in the middle of the cover.
Image source
Description in alt text.

Something in the world called love was Sue Saliba’s first novel, though it is the third of hers I’ve read. I fell in love with the prose and descriptions of mental illness in her other novels. In this one, Saliba explored female resilience and, of course, love: for one’s family, one’s friends and oneself.

The novel created an interesting picture of binary gender; females played a large role in the plot, and Esma’s life, whereas men were largely absent or passive. As the novel opened, Esma didn’t have a female presence in her life. Esma’s mother, though physically present in the family home, was often taken away by her depression. Her sister, Jen, had gone to study in Alaska, leaving Esma behind and betrayed. Esma’s father died before the events of the novel, his ashes scattered at Williamstown beach. So the prospect of Kara’s affection became alluring to Esma, an offer of something she’d been missing while her mother “slept or smoked or swallowed too much vallium.” And at first, Kara lived up to Esma’s imaginings, as “they stepped together into some kind of unknowing” and shared conversations of “delicious, near-evil intimacy.” But soon Kara became manipulative and Esma would make herself small, cancel her own plans do whatever she could to please her housemate. Simon, the other housemate and the male character who featured most in the novel also tried to appease Kara. He grew and became more assertive only through the support of his girlfriend, Samantha. Esma’s relationship with the women in her life all centred on love, the lack of it or the need for it.

Saliba highlighted the danger and the joy of love through Esma’s experiences. Love had hurt Esma: when Jen left, when Kara walked all over her. But it was love that healed her too, for animals, other people and herself. Esma loved dogs: first Simon’s dog and then the dog that she adopted. It was Simon’s dog who soothed her when Esma felt overwhelmed at one of his parties. And it was Maleena, the dog Esma adopted, who gave her the strength to stand up to Kara. As she left her upbringing behind and grappled with its impact on her, she realised it was “important all of the sudden as it had never been before, that she did not dismiss herself.” Instead, she forgave herself, and something deeper between her and Alain, one of Simon’s friends, became a possibility.  Esma reflected that the feeling of freedom and safety she’d felt “hadn’t been in kara or in the house or even Simon…but in herself.”

This book was great but it wasn’t perfect. As with Saliba’s later novels, Something in the World Called Love seemed to be over too quickly. Perhaps it was because Saliba’s lyricism, though undeniably gorgeous, at times lent itself to telling the narrative rather than showing readers what happened. Furthermore, there was no resolution of or change to Esma’s attitude towards Jen at the end of the novel. Even something as small as Esma reading one of Jen’s letters, or picking up the phone to call her, would have reinforced the idea of Esma’s character development.

My favourite line was one of Esma’s learnings in 22 Starling Street:
“[m]aybe she could simply find the moments of happiness, of realness and let all the mess of the rest simply be. She never imagined that. She always imagined she’d have to defeat the bad bits, the wrong bits. But here was a new way…”

Something in the world called love was a quiet, lyrical novel. A beautiful #LoveOzYA coming of age story that I absolutely adored!

You can buy a copy of Something in the world called love from Booktopia.

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