Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker is a real treat. Most books start at the beginning, it’s clear, it’s logical, it’s a tried and tested formula. But, if you think about it, as much as it makes storytelling easier, it’s not true to life. Few of our everyday adventures, and even fewer of our truly formative, soul-shaking moments, have distinct beginnings. Rather, they lead on from the previous episode and flow seamlessly into the next, their roots anchoring and linking them inextricably to what came before and what comes after.
Here in the Real World is always far more interested in telling the truth than in just telling a tale. As such, when we meet our hero, Ware, he is not cued up neatly as a blank canvas ready for his transformative character arc to be painted, rather he is already a work in progress, marked with the colours and hues of all that has come before.
He has just lived a liberating few weeks under the tutelage of his caring, but formidable grandmother and is coming away from it with a greater sense of self and more profound courage of his convictions than he has ever previously possessed. This unwritten prequel, and the changes it has already wrought in the 11-year-old, is what makes the events of the book possible. More than that though, it’s what adds the depth of reality to the story, nodding to the fact that here in the real world, life cannot be separated into self-contained chunks but is instead a tapestry, with the threads of what is and what was woven inextricably together to create what is yet to be.
The story recounts the life of Ware, a dreamy introvert who knows that being alone is not the same as being lonely. It is set during another summer when his parents are focussing on work so that they can afford to buy their rented house. Originally, he is given over to his grandmother to look after but, when an accident lands her in hospital, he is instead off-loaded onto The Rec, the type of dreary, worn-out holiday centre that makes children miss school. Rather than endure it for another vacation, the newly confident Ware secretly strikes out on his own and ends up in the grounds of an abandoned and half-demolished church.
In line with what is very much the theme of the book, Ware doesn’t see this building for what it is, but rather for what it can be. His keen interest in medieval history means he envisions it as a castle and, to him, its reinvention is a symbol of his hoped-for own – from ‘outsider’ to ‘normal boy’. The needless and even self-destructive nature of his change is, again, one of this book’s preoccupations.
It is by this church that Ware meets Jolene, a young girl who is already using the grounds to escape/remedy her troubles by cultivating an allotment. The pair come to an agreement to help each other, a pact that is both tried and tested before the book’s end.
As deep and contemplative as this book can be, the philosophical bent does nothing to take away from the pace or drive of the story. Pennypacker has penned a book of short, sharp chapters, each of which plays to the rhythm of the emotional rather than the narrative journey. Each section builds up to a heart-rending punchline, the power of which can be profound, with every word clearly and carefully crafted to let the mini-denouements land with maximum impact. It is a real testament to Pennypacker’s writing and characterisation that the reader is coaxed on not with cliffhangers, but rather with an absolute love for the duo of Ware and Jolene and complete investment in the transformations they are both undergoing and performing. The prose may be beautifully quiet and restrained, but that only makes the emotions it describes howl even louder.
I have seen it claimed that the book lacks well-rounded characters but, for me, that comes from a misunderstanding of what the text is saying. The key to unlocking the nuances of Here in the Real World is realising that whole story is told, not objectively, but from Ware’s perspective. This is why he is always so calm and reasonable and loving and forgiving because it’s how he sees himself, as a knight in training. His initial actions would look somewhat different if seen from his parents’ point of view. Equally, we see Jolene through his eyes. Her vulnerability comes from his reading of her, making her an (albeit modern and tough) damsel in distress – a characterisation I have no doubt she would take great issue with. The whole book is full of details that only he notices and readings of actions and comments that are his internal interpretations. The way we see things is not always the same as how we understand them (an example pondered in the book is how someone physically big can seem small in moments of distress). For most of us, it’s subconscious, but Ware notices these juxtapositions, these moments of disparity. They jar him.
It’s surely one of humankind’s greatest flaws, the ability to look without seeing, or perhaps see without understanding. It’s the seed of much tragedy. It’s why Ware’s parents think he is unhappy; it’s why Ware thinks his parents are disappointed in him, it’s the why of so many things. Ware’s remedy to this world of mixed up and contradicting understandings is to live in it as if it already is what it should be, a place of fairness, and to close that gap whenever the real world falls short of his own.
Happiness and belonging finally come to Ware when he has an outlet to share this, until then, private point of view, and this outlet is a video camera. It is gifted to him by his filmmaker uncle, who is the first to point out that Ware’s different way of seeing things doesn’t make him weird; it makes him an artist. By recording what he sees, others can see the world through his eyes, notice the things he notices and finally understand him. After this, the realisation comes to both Ware and those around him that the idea of life is not to change to fit in but to find out where and how you already fit.
This is such an important message, especially at the moment when children are transitioning back to the school community after, perhaps, periods of extended loneliness or isolation. It is an incredibly therapeutic and cathartic read of year five, year six and beyond. I’m not sure a book can save the world but, if any book can save a kid from feeling lonely or odd or left out, it’s this one. There is such value to that because, if we can find a place to belong in fiction, then it proves we can find a place to belong here in the real world too.
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