Goodreads: Vassa in the Night
Published: September 20, 2016
Everyone knows not to go to the BY’s convenience store. Shoplifters are beheaded there, and it seems that everyone who enters leaves a shoplifter. But BY’s is the only store in Brooklyn open throughout the night, which has been getting longer and longer. Just one minute feels like an eternity. So when all the light bulbs in Vassa’s home go out one night, her sister asks her to pick up a pack at BY’s; waiting for the morning and another store to open will take too long. Against her better judgement, Vassa goes, but she finds herself caught up in a much bigger plot than she expected–and sentenced to work three nights at BY’s before she can go home.
Vassa in the Night is…an interesting book. It’s something like magical realism set in an alternative Brooklyn, so readers should expect some things to be taken for granted and never explained. That seems to be the way of magical realism in general. However, my personal struggles with the book weren’t really because I couldn’t follow it–but because I was following it, and basically nothing the characters said or did make sense. Magical realism should mean that magic just is in the universe, that there’s no explanation of magical rules and such, not that the characters are also completely baffling in terms of actions and motivations.
So, sure, the book is confusing at times, as many readers have pointed out. For instance, there are several characters who speak in Alice in Wonderland-esque dialogue, which sometimes Vassa can decipher into something reasonable and sometimes she cannot. When Vassa doesn’t get the message, she ignores it, so I decided to do so, as well. There’s also the confusion of the world-building. Vassa implies that there’s a decent amount of magic in the world (and that Manhattan has cool, good magic and Brooklyn has annoying magic?), but all readers really see is the magic convenience store that’s the focus of the novel. It’s actually not clear what other magic exists in Brooklyn that humans are aware of.
Mostly, however, I was irritated by the fact that practically every character in the story makes big, life-changing decisions apparently on a whim. Sure, explanations are given for a lot of the characters’ actions, but the motivations never seem solid or believable. The most obvious example of this is that Vassa herself goes to a convenience store known for beheading its customers simply because her sister suggests she go–and Vassa delights in the idea that if she dies, her sister will have to live with the guilt of it all. That’s right, she’s willing to die in order to stick it to her bratty sister. This is a passing fancy, a gut reaction, something someone would think in the heat of a moment but not actually go through with! Yet Vassa does. And several other characters takes similarly large risks based on thoughts that should have just been passing, not acted upon. (I won’t name them to avoid spoilers, but if you’ve read the book, you probably know whom I’m talking about.)
I did like some of the characters, sometimes. Vassa is undeniably brave. She basically has the same moment of revelation as Moana–that sometimes there’s no big hero coming to save you, so if you want something done, you have to pick yourself up and do it yourself. That’s pretty admirable. However, her wooden doll sidekick has a bit of an attitude I found obnoxious rather than quirky or charming, and a lot of scenes are colored by her snide remarks. The nicest person in the book is perhaps Vassa’s older stepsister, but she’s mostly absent. I wish I had more people to root for and connect with. Instead, I just felt as though I were watching people I only mildly cared about.
The book is original. I give it points for not really being like any other YA book I’ve read. Ultimately it just wasn’t my taste. Porter has suggested there might be a sequel, and I think that’s great for her, but I have no desire to read a series in this world, which is one of my primary tests of how much I enjoyed a book.