Published by Vintage
Publication date: May 12th 2015
Genres: Fantasy, Fiction, Mystery, Young Adult
You are thirteen; standing in front of your locker at school one morning and the next thing you know you wake up in an austere white room and are informed you’ve been ‘rebirthed’ into Heaven, although it’s not called Heaven it’s called Town. For most 13-year-olds this would be fairly traumatic but for Oliver, the protagonist in Neil Smith’s Boo it’s not altogether unexpected. You see, he’s been told from an early age that he has a heart defect so he figures that’s what did him in. Also, Oliver is a very scientifically inclined young man. A nerd, one might say. Actually, many did say, and frequently, at his school where he was given the nickname Boo due to his pale skin and white-blond hair. Life there was not easy but Oliver’s interests and adaptability meant he always had something to pique his interest. As an agnostic he approaches Town the same way.
Probably the most noticeable aspect of Boo is Town/Heaven as imagined by Smith. It is a safe-ish, worn out version of Earth, bland and unremarkable except that it is segregated by age, so Oliver finds himself surrounded by other 13-year-olds. There are all the kinds of people you find in life but would have hoped had transcended into better souls upon dying. No such luck. There are stupid, lazy, and rude people. The buildings are rundown, there are limited quantities of everything and you are only there for 50 years before re-dying and going who-knows-where. Is it any surprise that the tedium leads to a lot of Townies spending their time trying to find a portal back to Earth so they can at least have fun haunting the living?
This less-than-stellar description of Heaven aside, Boo is about the reality of Oliver’s life, death and the aftermath of both. Shortly after he arrives in Town, Johnny, another boy from his school, arrives and informs him that his heart did not give out but that they were shot and killed by someone. Johnny says this person was their age and that he then killed himself and must be somewhere in Town. His obsession with finding their killer has disastrous consequences. Through the two boys, Smith makes all of the characters in Boo feel real. Oliver is so firmly drawn that we see not only his off-putting fastidiousness but also the heart of a boy behind it, the self-awareness and humor, and the deep abiding love he feels for his parents. In the same way, Johnny reaches out from the page as a young teen who seems to have it all on the surface, but who cannot find his way free from the pain that lies below.
That Oliver and Johnny connect in the afterlife is bittersweet and poignant. This bond continues through to the novel’s final pages and is strong enough to carry Boo, but the odd, disjointed pieces of Town, as they continue to accumulate, overwhelm the characters. There is a sense that Oliver’s journey after death provides the peace he did not get in life, but Johnny’s details veer into the uncomfortably bizarre. This is not enough to make Boo a disappointing read but it leaves the emotional aspects of the novel blunted. A bit less would have felt like a lot more.