We all know the feeling: waiting for reading updates in suspenseful impatience when a friend picks up a book you recommended – the hope they will feel at home in the fictional world, love the characters, appreciate the writing. And when they DO, you can discuss all of our thoughts/emotions/theories with them! It’s the best bonding experience, right?
This morning, a uni friend of mine finished reading my favourite book, and she LOVED it! She gave it a rating of 20/10, and we spent ages discussing lots of aspects of the novel; I’m so happy! This book is, of course, Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, a book I got so obsessed with, I got the snake on the cover tattooed on my arm. Now let me tell you why I am obsessed – and why it’ll be the best book you’ll ever read.
First things first: TWs (for the book, not this post): sexual assault (including that of a minor), drug abuse, murder, death/grief. If I’ve forgotten anything, do please let me know. This novel isn’t an easy read, and I always stress that people should only pick it up if they’re in the right head space for it. Take care of yourself, first and foremost.
Quick synopsis: Alex Stern is a rather unusual Yale freshman – she was raised by her hippie mum in Los Angeles (Alex’s full name is Galaxy Stern, a fact she’d rather keep hidden), she dropped out of school early, and was the sole survivor at a murder scene. Now she’s been offered a scholarship for a prestigious ivy league university – why? Alex doesn’t know herself – that could turn her life around. Caught in a world of magic and secret societies, Alex faces the ghosts of her past and future in an attempt to control the dark forces at Yale university.
The first thing I love about this book is the setting. Leigh Bardugo herself went to Yale and it’s easy to tell she has a lot of affection for the campus. At the same time, I relate so much to Alex’s feeling out of place amongst the historical buildings and the libraries of New Haven bursting with academic knowledge. Like her, I started my degree when I was 20 which is slightly older than most freshers. I felt as inadequate as Alex when I first entered my uni’s library with its thousands of academic texts, so different from the place where I grew up: picking up a novel was equated to being a nerd, and being cool was valued more highly than smartness. Alex is also self-conscious about her (many) tattoos – some of which are snakes, hence the cover – and when asked if she’s embarrassed about them, she replies that she is – sometimes. It’s a statement I find so accurate because, even though I love all of my tattoos and they represent a part of myself, I am always aware that people judge me for them. I know that there are social circles where they’re deemed inappropriate, where I’d be considered lesser for them. Like myself, Alex loves her tattoos but also knows they set her apart from the privileged student body of Yale, as they are a representation of her past.
One of the most accurate descriptions of uni life is Alex picking English lit courses because she thinks they’ll be easy… and then finds herself struggling so much with the assigned studying outside of class. Who hasn’t fallen down the rabbit hole and chosen a poem for their assignment because it’s short, and then realised they have nothing to say about it because… it’s so short?! It makes me laugh every time I think about it – I’ve been there, Alex. More than once.
What really gets me about this book, though, is the subplot between Alex and her (more than) friend, Hellie. Alex idolises Hellie and finds in her a light in what would otherwise be a very dark time in her life (living with an abusive boyfriend who sells her to his friends and keeps her on drugs, estranged from her mother and any friends she had before…). I have no doubt that Alex had more affection for Hellie than friendship, whether she knew it or not. Theirs is a relationship founded in desperation, but also hope, comfort, and love. And that’s what makes losing her so much more painful. It always strikes me how detached Alex becomes from everyone around her, following the events at Ground Zero, and here’s why: ‘I let you die. To save myself, I let you die. That is the danger in keeping company with survivors.’ (Whom she is talking to, you will find out if you read the book!)
That’s the one thing Alex undeniably is: a survivor. She has lived through the unthinkable, so she will do anything to protect her own interests. It’s what makes her an unusual and intriguing protagonist: a lot of her actions are morally ambiguous and yet I can’t fault her for any of them. The world has made her what she is – independent, ruthless, ready to strike. And yet she becomes friends with her flatmates Lauren and Mercy, and even the oh-so-perfect Darlington grows attached to her. Her status as both a self-reliant survivor and a protective friend keeps the reader on their toes as we never know what to expect from her.
For me, I guess, this was a right time, right place read. Towards the end of last year, I wasn’t doing so well (hell, the entire year was a complete disaster for me), and I burned a lot of bridges. That’s why I identified with many of the emotions in this book (if, luckily, none of the actual events) and found inspiration in Alex’s resilience. There’s something so raw about Alex’s pain that resonated with me at the time (and still does) so I will always keep Ninth House close to my heart. I don’t know if it’s strange to say but I find this book a comfort read, even if it’s anything but comfortable.
Now, if you haven’t picked up this 20/10 read, what are you waiting for??? And if you have, let’s chat! I want to hear ALL of your thoughts!