Switch is innovative, perplexing, and heartbreaking. In other words, it’s exactly what we have come to expect from the one-of-a-kind mind and talent that is A.S. King. Even among her unique oeuvre, though, this novel stands out as experimental, which might explain some of the rather tepid reviews it has received thus far. It’s hard to prepare readers for a truly surrealist experience, and perhaps that’s especially true for young readers who might be experiencing surrealist literature for the first time. So, how does one prepare to read a book like this?
Well, the best way I can describe Switch is to say that it’s a visual depiction of what happens at the crossroads of trauma, grief, and recovery. Imagine every scenario, every emotion, that manifests from trauma: Isolation, doubt, self-loathing, fear, suspicion. Next, imagine the cause of all this is your own family, the very people (or person) you’re trapped with. And these people are also the ones you must rely on. Got it so far? Now: make that story visible. Literally, tell this story, in words, in such a way as to make the readers see and experience the unraveling of that trauma, that grief, right there on the page in front of them, not necessarily in the prose, but in the construction and deconstruction of that prose. Memories are metaphors. People are tools personified. Can you imagine? I doubt it. And there’s the genius of A.S. King. There’s the brilliance of Switch.
The story itself is told from the perspective of teenager Truda Becker, whose parents are going through a kind of separation, whose older brother is being blackmailed by their sibling over something that sort of did but sort of didn’t happen, and whose sister is a manipulative narcissist hellbent on turning the family members against one another. Truda’s father, in a noble but misguided attempt to heal his family, creates something that changes the world. As a result, many young people are discovering they have certain special abilities, and one of those young people might be Truda herself. What does all this mean? How can the world outside seem totally normal, everyone going about their business as usual, when one’s own home is descending rapidly and maddeningly into a labyrinth of secrets, lies, and makeshift security blankets? And how does one find the courage to right the world again if it means sacrificing her own special abilities in the process?
Why does time stop, how do we get it moving again, and is it worth it to try?
This is an uncomfortable read, and intentionally so. Not only are the themes unsettling, but so too are certain actions and events that are alluded to with greater or lesser detail at different points in the narrative. So, it’s going to be tough to finish reading this story, close the cover, and walk away feeling what we might normally expect to feel after reading a young adult novel: Joy? Elation? Comfort? Well, no, not really, but there’s hope for those things. There’s hope, indeed, in the fact that, despite the visceral, almost painterly displays of trauma the protagonist Truda Becker experiences and depicts, she remains open to love in the end. She remains open to forgiveness—forgiveness, that is, for those who deserve it (including herself); but she also learns how to draw a firm line between herself and those who would harm her, and this is something she, even as the youngest, manages to teach the rest of her family, too.
Grab your crowbar. Flip the switch.
“To understand anything is to understand energy” (24).
“Carrie has been on antidepressants for six months. She has gained eighteen pounds. The people who point out this weight gain to her far outnumber the people who ask how she’s feeling today, or if she feels like dying anymore” (59).
“I think the universe is rewarding me for dismantling Fear” (134).
“This is the solution to fourteen generations of bullshit that we don’t have to pass down to our kids. That’s our job. Generation fifteen. We’ll be the generation who heals” (164).
“Time stopped because it was sick of us being assholes to each other. So the only way to start it again is to stop being assholes to each other” (221).