Reviewed by Kimberly Christensen
Young Adult Fiction
Content Warning: This book includes descriptions of death, depression, attempted suicide, animal poaching, animal cruelty, forced migration, human trafficking, war, genocide, child soldiers, and rape.
Following the death of her boyfriend, high school senior Valentine falls into a severe depression and nearly overdoses on pills. Desperate to pump some life back into her daughter, Valentine’s mom takes her on holiday to Thailand. They join a small tour for families, joining up with another troubled teen and her mother and two adult brothers who immediately make it known that they have an ulterior motive for the trip–to cross the border into Burma in order to document the treatment of the Rohingya people by the Burmese government.
Valentine is lost in memories of her dead boyfriend and having a difficult time being interested in anything, but predictably, the foreignness of Thailand does stir her interest. As Valentine and her tour group hike through the rainforest and visit hillside villages, she develops an unexpectedly quick crush on one of the guides, Lin. While she experiences a tiny bit of inner conflict about the dead boyfriend in light of this new love interest, she overcomes this fairly quickly–especially when the two decide to try to rescue an orphaned elephant. This requires Valentine to sneak away from the main group without telling her mother of her plans, which Valentine feels guilty about especially once she and Lin are pursued by poachers and Burmese soldiers. For Lin, a former child soldier in Burma, this danger is familiar. As he describes his past, the stark contrast between the realities and limited opportunities that Lin has had butt up against Valentine’s Western life and she is forced to consider her own privilege.
Throughout her journey through Thailand, Valentine is exposed to the political and economic realities that drive environmental destruction in Southeast Asia, from the slash-and-burn terraced farming that provides subsistence to the people living in the hills, to the shooting of elephants in order to capture babies for use in elephant rides and tourism. She experiences the rainforest as both a source of life and wonder, and a terrifying place where lawlessness seems the norm and soldiers wait to prey on people and animals alike. By the end of the novel, Valentine has put her problems into perspective and will return to her everyday life in Canada with a new understanding of the meaning of life.
The World on Either Side tries to do an admirable thing in exposing Westerners to the complexities surrounding issues like environmental protection in developing nations and poaching, but unfortunately it falls short. Instead, it feels like disaster tourism through one problem after the next–political instability in Burma, genocide against the Karen and Rohingya peoples, crushing poverty, child soldiers, elephant poaching, animal cruelty, rape, and on an on. With only 270 pages, the author tries to tackle way too many issues and unfortunately that results in none of them being done well. On top of that the story is told through the eyes of a white Westerner, who has her own very real set of problems. But these problems are minimized by their juxtaposition against the more horrific issues she is exposed to, with the end result being that she miraculously gets over the death of her boyfriend by realizing that her problems aren’t as big as other people face. This serves to reduce to caricature both the experience of depression and the difficult and deep problems faced by the Thai characters. Neither situation feels like it gets the care that it deserves.
Additionally, one cannot heal their depression by witnessing the slaughter of elephants, running from poachers, nearly being raped by a soldier and then watching one’s new love interest murder said soldier. The layers upon layers of trauma that would be added to the mental burden of an already depressed person are completely unexplored in this novel, save for one moment of Valentine and her mother sobbing in a restaurant. It feels entirely unrealistic.
Although this book has a lot of potential, it leaves nearly all of the issues feeling unresolved at the end. The touristy voyeurism also leaves a bad taste. 2 of 5 stars.
Note: This book is getting high ratings at Goodreads.