We Were Restless Things by Cole Nagamatsu
I received an ARC on Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
From debut author Cole Nagamatsu comes an atmospheric contemporary fantasy about three teens coming of age in the wake of a mysterious death.
Last summer, Link Miller drowned on dry land in the woods, miles away from the nearest body of water. His death was ruled a strange accident, and in the months since, his friends and family have struggled to make sense of it. But Link’s close friend Noemi Amato knows the truth: Link drowned in an impossible lake that only she can find. And what’s more, someone claiming to be Link has been contacting her, warning Noemi to stay out of the forest.
As these secrets become too heavy for Noemi to shoulder on her own, she turns to Jonas, her new housemate, and Amberlyn, Link’s younger sister. All three are trying to find their place—and together, they start to unravel the truth: about themselves, about the world, and about what happened to Link.
Unfolding over a year and told through multiple POVs and a dream journal, We Were Restless Things explores the ways society shapes our reality, how we can learn to love ourselves and others, and the incredible power of our own desires.
My thoughts: I was drawn to this book by the beautiful cover and the blurb. Drowning on dry land? The CSI/Criminal Minds fan in me was intrigued. Coming-of-age in the wake of a death? Sounds like the kind of post-traumatic growth/mental health representation I live for. Indeed, the beginning was great.
Nagamatsu is an incredibly talented writer, especially in terms of imagery and description. The metaphors were fresh and lush, the scenes lively. Indeed without this, I doubt I would have finished the book.
The representation of an asexual character was refreshing, although I’ll go into what I wish was different about it later.
Other than that, the more I read, the more let-down I felt. I wanted to give this a good rating, especially since the author is a debut, but I couldn’t in good conscience give it more than a 2/5 stars.
What I wish was different: To start, the names were unique, in the bad pulls-me-out-of-the-story because I’m trying to pronounce them/understand them way. (i.e. Cesca, from Francesca, so probably pronounced Chesca. Noemi, girl Lyle, Gaetan, the last name Lake, despite the Lake being a big metaphor).
The imagery really was beautiful, but after a while made the story drag. Part of that was the dependence of the book on the imagery, with little plot/tension/characterization driving the story. The dialogue was just mediocre. There was nothing I really needed to keep reading to find out (its apparent very early on the lake is some fantastical thing, so what more is there to learn?). Similarly, I didn’t understand why I should care about any of the characters. Jonas was the closest I came to feeling for someone, but Link, for example, or even Noemi, I honestly didn’t care much about them. Part of that is they don’t seem to have concrete, tangible goals they are trying to accomplish.
I loved that the story took place in Minnesota, since I am from there as well. Shivery, MN was a great place name (its cold all the time here) but Galaxie was another too-on-the-nose metaphor/name.
Speaking of the asexual representation, while I appreciated it, and thought it was refreshing in the midst of a romance plot, some of the language used made me cringe. Over time, I understood it, but at the beginning it felt like the problematic trope of kissing/etc-despite-not-liking-it and not saying anything/saying no, as a reinforcement of women not stating, and sticking to, their boundaries.
As for the dream sequences, these felt unnecessary and aggressively literary. A former creative writing teacher of mine used to say that all parts/sentences should “do work” i.e. characterize, push the plot forward, or reveal themes. From the description it feels like these are supposed to be thematic, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out how or why. Similarly, what’s the point, thematically, of the book? I can maybe see the argument for “learning to love ourselves”, but how is this any different than any other book? And for the power of our desires? How does this appear? Also what desires? Part of what this book was lacking were concrete goals/desires for the characters to achieve besides the nebulous “find out about the lake”.
All in all, the author is, no doubt, incredibly talented, especially with imagery. I wish I enjoyed this book more, and perhaps would have if it stopped at about 1/4 of the way through.