I would like to extend a bit of a trigger warning for The Tragedy of Dane Riley: this book delves deeply into a grieving teenager’s mind, and there are parts of this book that introduce topics such as self-harm, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts.
Dane Riley, the titular character of the novel, has been coasting through life ever since his father passed away the year before. As if that weren’t bad enough, his mother is now dating his father’s best friend Chuck, and Dane is saddled with a pseudo-stepsibling who loves to cause him misery. Everyone in his life appears to have moved on, but Dane remains stationary, struggling to come to terms with the death of his father, the only person who made Dane feel like it was okay to be himself. An emotional novel about mental health, loss, and growth, The Tragedy of Dane Riley is a book that forces you to reflect on your meaning of life and what (or who) you live for.
This book was an incredibly difficult read, as it fixates on extremely heavy content that can be hard to digest. Losing a parent is something that happens to everyone; whether you have a close relationship with them or not, whether it has happened in your life or not, this happens to everyone and will happen. Although it has not yet happened to me, I imagine that it is an unbelievably harsh reality to navigate.
The character of Dane Riley goes through a lot, especially within the condensed time frame that the novel presents. The upheaval that his father’s death and his mother’s new relationship causes does not help with his deteriorating mental health, and he slowly begins losing his grip on reality and his desire to keep going, whether it is graduating from high school or identifying the purpose to continue living. The text is particularly draining; Dane’s mind is a cesspool of dark thoughts, hopelessness, and so much anger.
There are moments where we can come up for a breath of air, such as when Dane gradually relaxes when working at Mr. Edgar’s Grocery Store, or when he is with Ophelia, the girl next door and his first love. Wry humor is also stamped in various places to help balance out Dane’s despondency, but for the most part, readers are quite literally forced out of their comfort zone as they share a space with Dane’s musings.
Yet, this is the compelling nature of Spears’s writing. Readers are not only immersed in the Dane’s story, but also Dane’s state of mind. Dane even mentions it multiple times in the novel: everything that he feels is exhausting, and sometimes there are only brief moments of a reprieve before he sinks back down, similar to how depression and/or anxiety may feel to others (I don’t wish to speak generally, but based on my own experience, this is comparable to how my emotions drained me at my lowest lows). Spears does an excellent job at tying this element into her novel to interact with her audience and encourage empathy toward her character and those who are like Dane.
The Tragedy of Dane Riley is a heartbreakingly raw examination of mental health and coping with loss. Spears does not shy away from Dane’s reality, and she also takes care to implement brief instances of differing realities from the characters around him. Everyone’s walk through life is different, and being sad or depressed is a perfectly acceptable response to life and its many punches. Spears’s novel manifests this concept in an honest manner, and while it doesn’t have a traditional “happy ending,“ I was left with a message of hope alongside the debilitation that there is something to live for for everyone. It may take others longer to identify it, but it is there, and it is waiting.
The Tragedy of Dane Riley was published on June 22nd, 2021.