Queer YA Spotlight: Where You Left Us

Cinnamon Prince is running away from home.

Not properly, not for good—just literally running, along the scraggly stretch of beach below her family’s house.

The water is blue as far as her eyes can see, as much as her chest can hold when she breathes it in. She does this a lot—running. She likes her brain best when it’s almost quiet.

Halcyon House looms over her the whole run back, all white with a steep-gabled roof and rows of windows like empty eye sockets. Its faded face peers towards the edge of the cliff, casting soft shadows over the sand and sea. Cinnamon used to think that Halcyon stretched towards the ocean the way plants do the sun. Or as though determined to drown itself and everyone in it.

Premise: The Prince family has been notorious for generations, from rockstar dad Ian and his mental breakdown to great-aunt Sadie who “went mad” and mysteriously vanished in the ‘60s. Teenaged sisters Cinnamon and Scarlett have their own issues, and must confront the haphazard state of their family relationships when they all end up home for the summer holidays. When a storm cracks open a headstone in the family graveyard, questions left buried for half a century are suddenly brought back to the light. Is piecing together the Prince clan’s past the key to a more liveable future?

Rainbow rep: a bisexual protagonist (Cinnamon); an f/f romantic subplot (with another bisexual character, no less!); gay side characters/ensemble cast

Content considerations: depictions of panic attacks and anxiety; depression; anger issues; discussions of the stigma around mental health; brief discussions of suicide ideation

A queer gothic-ish mystery about the uncanny realities of returning to your childhood hometown… set on the Australian coast? This one was made for me!

This is the second book by Rhiannon Wilde, who I recently covered in my post on queer Australian YA. I have to say, I enjoyed this one much more than Henry Hamlet; it spoke much more to my personal tastes, but also felt like a technical improvement in terms of having a tighter plot and a greater sense of forward momentum even in its quiet lulls. And this is, overall, a quiet book. Its central mystery is tangled and emotional, but not the source of a heart-pounding thriller. The story of the Prince family is not crashing waves but a gentle, tidal swirl of love, mental health, and history.

Sisters Cinnamon and Scarlett are our dual POV characters for this complicated summer. If the book had only been narrated by one of them, the other could have easily appeared as the villain—or at least as a much more shallow, sharp version of herself. As it is, we get a fantastic, layered picture of both the sisters, each caught up in their own heads and hiding heaps from one another and from the world. Their narrative voices feel quite distinct (always great) and convey their personalities and the individual mental health tangles through which they see their coastal hometown.

Cinnamon is angry and Scarlett is anxious. Both are depicted wonderfully, and you feel deeply for both girls as they try to carry themselves through the trauma and grief that’s weighing on their shoulders. Their father, Ian, has recently had a mental breakdown and is at home asleep most of the time. Cinnamon takes it upon herself to take care of him, suppressing her own needs and emotions until, like coal into diamonds, they solidify under the pressure and all that comes out of her is frustration.

She particularly resents her mother, who moved away after divorce, and Scarlett, who moved away to attend boarding school. Cinnamon feels abandoned and, naturally, does not want this feeling to continue, leading to her throwing up walls and only letting her ex-boyfriend, current-best-friend Will in. When she starts falling for her co-worker Daisy, she feels happy for about five minutes and then is crushed by the fear that Something Will Go Wrong, that there’s some intrinsic quality to Cinnamon that means she’s not allowed to be happy. It’s painful to read but you understand her broken logic; she feels very real in these moments of doubt.

Meanwhile, Scarlett gets the Returning Home plot, coming back to the ornate and blustery family home that’s haunted by the ghosts of a childhood she can’t get back. In lieu of reconnecting with Cinnamon, she quickly becomes obsessed with a different family conflict: the mystery of “mad” Great-Aunt Sadie, who allegedly committed some great scandal and then disappeared. However, this only makes things more complicated, as digging into the past links her up with history nerd Will.

No, he isn’t currently dating Scarlett’s sister. Yes, it would still be weird if she was attracted to him. Yes, this will be one of the many things she is anxious about across the story—mirroring Cinnamon by pre-emptively pushing people away and suppressing her own feelings based on the assumption that she, as a person, is a ticking time bomb of emotional disaster. That’s the Prince family legacy, right? They’re infamous for being messy. They have a house on a cliff with its own graveyard, for goodness’ sake—they radiate drama.

Without spoiling too much, this all comes to a happy, if imperfect, ending—and gives us two parallel romance plots (Cinnamon and Daisy, Scarlett and Will) that I’m happy to say are equally delightful and compelling. Which is good news, because my one gripe with this story is that, given that the book is about the Prince sisters, I sort of wish they’d had more page-time together. I understand that them avoiding each other like magnets is part of the point, but still. They find their way back to each other in the end, at least, and they need each other to put together the puzzle pieces left behind by Sadie.

Parts are deeply sad, parts are very funny. There are some great relationship dynamics here: I love seeing characters who dated ending up as weirdly tight-knit best friends, and we get to see that with both Cinnamon and Will and the divorced Prince parents. The atmosphere and prose is beautiful, drawing you into this coastal landscape that manages to mirror the sisters’ complicated emotions, sometimes summery-sweet and sometimes churning up a grey tide of trouble. It never quite feels like A Book About Mental Health, more like a story where characters just have their own realistic pile of issues to deal with, all of which informs how they move and grow across the narrative. Where You Left Us is an overall lovely read. Let it wash over you like a swim in the sea.

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Filed under Alex Reads

2 responses to “Queer YA Spotlight: Where You Left Us

  1. Pingback: The Best Books I Read in 2022 | The Afictionado

  2. Pingback: Twenty-Twenty-Through: December ’22 Roundup | The Afictionado

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