Jack Dahl comes home from school in the freezing Idaho winter to find his mother’s body hanging from the ceiling fan. It’s the first, horrifying scene of What Beauty There Is, Cory Anderson’s intense and gorgeous debut young adult novel, and unfortunately for Jack, things only get worse from there.
In the weeks that follow the death of their mother, Jack and his little brother Matty struggle to figure out who they can trust in a world that seems to be full of enemies. Their only hope is finding a briefcase full of money that their father hid before being sent to prison years earlier—but others are after it too, which means they’re after Jack and Matty. Their pursuers range from the well-meaning—the town sheriff, hoping to bring the boys under the care of social services—to the unconditionally villainous: Bardem, the man who will commit any crime necessary in order to get his hands on that briefcase of money. The only one who knows what Bardem is really capable of is his daughter Ava, who allies herself with Jack and Matty despite understanding what it might cost her.
What Beauty There Is is Jack’s story, but it’s also Ava’s. She narrates the story at a distance, commenting on the events of each chapter, even the ones she doesn’t experience firsthand. These passages from Ava’s point of view can seem confusing and a little repetitive on first read, but they pay off by the end of the story. They also allow us to see the growing relationship between Jack and Ava from a different angle: Two people sharing tentative but real affection at a time when it’s difficult to think about anything but survival. And most of Jack’s love and energy will always have to be devoted to Matty, who Jack is so desperate to protect from the world’s cruelty.
Most of the time, he’s fighting a losing battle. Anderson puts her characters, and her readers, through a lot. By the end of the book, we’ve come through excruciating violence, parental abuse of every kind, and cold-blooded murder. But true to its title, What Beauty There Is rewards persistent readers with a glimpse of something beautiful. Anderson’s prose is sharp and literary; a series of short sentences can land like a slew of punches, and every moment of pain for the characters is deeply felt. The novel is also carefully and lovingly constructed, and leads to a shockingly beautiful ending. What Beauty There Is is difficult to read, but it’s a wonderful debut: A tense, piercing novel about memory, sacrifice, and the stories we tell ourselves and others.
What Beauty There Is by Cory Anderson was released on April 6, 2021.