Title: Ask the Passengers
Author: A.S. King
Publisher: Little Brown
Year: This edition 2013, original edition 2012
Format: Paperback, 293 pages
It’s not often that I walk into a bookshop and impulse buy books anymore. Although the internet is great for keeping updated with books, it is also limiting the experiences I have in truly being surprised by a book. I’ve always loved going into a bookshop, picking up a book based solely on the cover or spine, reading the blurb, and then purchasing it. Very rarely do I do this anymore, as I always know which books I want to purchase, and in which cover design (if there is a choice between US and UK) I want to get. Ask the Passengers was the first book in a long time that I let myself be surprised by a book in a bookstore, and I am so glad I did because I adored this book.
Ask the Passengers is a contemporary novel that deals with how we choose to identify ourselves. Astrid Jones feels as if there is no one she can share her secrets with. There’s her pushy mother, her uninterested father, her not so close younger sister, and her over interested friends who wouldn’t understand exactly how she’s feeling. Then there is the girl that Astrid is slowly falling in love with, a secret that she can’t share. With no one to listen, Astrid watches airplanes in her backyard, and asks the passengers of these planes her most personal questions, as these passengers cannot judge her. She also sends these passengers love, as Astrid understands what it’s like to feel like you need some love. But when her secret comes out and everyone begins to label her, Astrid discovers that she refuses to be labeled as anything, and tries to break free of society’s boxes and definitions.
From the very first sentence, I knew that I was going to love this book. I was instantly sucked in. It’s not very often that you open a book and know that from page one you are going to love the author’s writing. Especially when it is an author you have never heard of before, and you have therefore, never read any of their previous books. The rest of the sentences in this book are equally beautiful, with King demonstrating a poignant writing style. I don’t think I have ever come across an author in that I have become so attuned to their writing style in such a short amount of time. I have so many references to quotes in my notes that I just loved so much. Here is a random collection of them:
“I see shapes in the clouds by day and shooting stars by night.”
“It feels good to love a thing and not expect anything back.”
“I can see blue. Blue like in the deep end of a swimming pool. Blue like if I lived in a bubble in the sky.”
“You have to let people get to know you before you decide they don’t like you.”
I really love books that I feel I get some form of life lesson from. Ask the Passengers is one of those books. I just feel like there were so many important things about society that were questioned in this novel, and I loved that the author managed to achieve this in a tasteful manner. Sure, this book has some heavy bullying involved that would be deemed as not tasteful, but it is the structure of the sentences and the word choice that the main character takes from these negative experiences that make it a learning experience for the readers of the book. I think the best way to explain what I mean would be of an example: “everybody’s always looking for the person they’re better than…I am equal to a baby and to a hundred-year-old-lady. I am equal to an airline pilot and a car mechanic. I am equal to you. You are equal to me. It’s that universal. Except that it’s not.” I most definitely did not go into this book expecting to read so much insight into common human behaviour. This is something we all do, and I think King explained this in just the perfect way. This is only one example of many social aspects that King beautifully questioned throughout this book.
Moving on from my thoughts on the writing style because they’re getting slightly ramble-y, another aspect of this book I enjoyed was the magical realism. Up until this book, I had never read a book with magical realism in it. To be perfectly honest, I had no idea what this even meant. So I Googled it! For those of you who also don’t know what it is, magical realism is a genre where magical or unreal elements are a natural part of an otherwise realistic environment. So in Ask the Passengers, every few chapters there is a short perspective of a passenger on a plane. You learn briefly about something occurring in their lives, and then you read about each of these passengers receiving an unexpected feeling of love. On the ground, Astrid likes to watch the planes and imagine sending love to the passengers. The magical realism is that the love Astrid is sending is actually being received by the passengers on the planes flying over her house. It is an interesting concept, and because I have never read about this I found it an intriguing take on a contemporary novel. I think it is definitely something I will look out for in other books to give a try.
I think what makes this novel is the very realistic characters. Astrid embodies any teenager who is just trying to find out who they are, and find their place in the world. Although I can’t relate to her coping with her coming out as gay, I do admire King for incorporating this theme into a novel. I think that not enough books convey this theme, and I think this is sort of sad for teenagers who want to read books that they can really relate to. I like the way Astrid dealt with the situation once she is outed. People are being absolutely horrible to her, and she just keeps her chin up and tries to not listen to all the hate. In the words of Taylor Swift, she shakes it off. I think this is a quality in people/characters that should be admired. I also felt incredibly sympathetic for her situation. At one stage in this book Astrid has no one left whom she can turn to, and I think for many people in this situation, this could be disastrous, but for Astrid she just sends the love to the people on the plane to keep her strong.
My least favourite character in this book was Astrid’s Mum, Claire. I just don’t understand how any parent could not obviously see how they unequally treat their children. Claire would always prefer Astrid’s sister Ellis to Astrid, and would have mother daughter activities that Astrid was not invited to. Claire’s favoritism towards Ellis was obvious in almost every little thing she said or did whether in regards to Astrid or not. Even at the end when Astrid is being hated upon for being gay, the mother believes that Ellis and herself have it worse than Astrid because of how embarrassing it is. It made me incredibly frustrated to read about a mother treating her daughter in such a horrible way. It also made me sad that no one called Claire out on this. She got away with it. Another interesting tidbit about Claire was that she seemed to communicate better with Astrid’s best friend Kristina, than her own daughter. I truly felt as if Claire was making no effort to really get to know her daughter, and this made me further sympathetic towards Astrid. It definitely made me feel very appreciative to my own Mother. Once again this book showed me how lucky I have it in life.
An element that I enjoyed in this novel in regards to character relationships was the sister bond between Astrid and Ellis. These two have not been close in years, and as a result do not really stick up for one another or communicate on a deeper level. I loved seeing the evolution of their relationship, as you learn about how they were as children and roughly when they stopped being close sisters. The novel then came full circle and allowed for the to sisters to become trusting of one another again, and I thought that it was a nice inclusion in the story. I think Astrid was a very lonely character, and I think that having her sister by her side throughout the events of the book would have been touching for Astrid. I also like that by the end of the book it was acknowledged that both sisters had the blame for not fixing their relationship. I’m a strong believer in that it takes to people to be in a relationship, and I think we all enjoy associating blame with people. But we are equally in charge of who we communicate with, and I appreciated that this book explored this.
This book was also very insightful into how school environments are most definitely not supportive. “We have a sign in the entrance hall that says this is no place for hate, but that doesn’t actually make it no place for hate.” Once Astrid and her friends have been outed, her school is not supportive in the slightest. The students ridicule and bully, and they seemingly get away with it. I can’t remember any teacher stepping in to stop the hate. I can’t realistically see how any school could react in such a way. They even decide that a compulsory assembly and pep rally (I think this is what it was at least) was a good decision in how to ease the situation. Personally, I don’t understand how putting a bunch of intolerant people in a room and trying to make them listen to something they clearly don’t want to hear is going to solve anything. If anything, it is providing more opportunity for hate, just on a greater scale. I also find it appalling that parents of other students would belittle a teenage girl just because of her sexual orientation, and make a big deal out of their children having to sit in classes together with a gay person. There’s many horror stories that you hear about high schools and gay students, and it makes me happy to know that the high school I went to was not anywhere near as bad as this when they were dealing with issues about sexual orientation.
I gave Ask the Passengers 4 stars. It was beautifully written, with realistic characters, and the perfect blend between enjoyment and thoughtfulness. I loved the aspect of magical realism, and am hoping to explore other books in this genre within the coming months. I was pleasantly surprised as to how much I enjoyed this book, and I look forward to reading other A.S. King books to see if I am as much a fan of those as I am with Ask the Passengers. If you enjoy contemporaries but want one that has a different spin, give Ask the Passengers a try, because it truly is an amazing book.