The Schwa Was Here
By Neal Shusterman
Shusterman stands as one of the few authors I will buy the work of, regardless of circumstance. I don’t wait to see what the book is about; I trust him to give me good adventure and provoked thoughts. I first encountered his work in Unwind, which presented a world where parents could retroactively abort their teenage children. I followed him to Everlost, a place where children go if they die and fall out of the tunnel running toward the light.
Schwa presents a bit of a different tale which is much lighter on the speculative elements than the other forays I’ve read. The concept is fairly simple: If no one pays attention to you, do you really exist? Welcome to modern-day New York. Anthony Bonano is a nobody in his family, but at least he has friends. Then, he encounters the Schwa. The Schwa isn’t invisible; it’s just that no one ever notices him. He blends into the background. His face is so bland a person can’t remember its features. Whatever he does slips from memory.
Anthony quickly finds ways to cash in on the Schwa’s semi-invisibility, but when they take one dare they shouldn’t, both the Schwa and Anthony must serve the old man who owns half of Manhattan, or their families will pay a very dear price. As the serve their new cruel master, more and more people begin to forget about the Schwa… until he is convinced that soon he will simply cease to exist. Anthony struggles to find a way to convince the Schwa that he matters… until he himself forgets who the Schwa is.
Shusterman excels at creating realistic and complex characters, and Schwa is no exception. Anthony is a very real teen. The Schwa reveals what a person who has been ignored his entire life would really be like.
Plot twists abound. The Schwa’s mother disappeared when he was younger; the neighborhood believes Schwa’s father went insane and chopped her up. In a Shusterman novel, it’s never that simple. The truth is always more horrifying and more real, and his style is consistent here. The author does provide a few basic “we could see it coming” moments, but always finds a way to turn them to an unexpected angle.
Unlike the other Shusterman books I’ve read, this is aimed at young teens as opposed to older teens. I found myself greatly enjoying the book and would highly recommend it, but I’d especially urge junior high teachers to take a look and consider it either for classroom reading or to put on a recommended list of their own.
And for heaven’s sakes, if you haven’t read Shusterman before, do yourself a favor and pick up something he wrote. Start here if you like stories set today, but if you’ve ventured forth to speculative fiction, find Unwind. It will haunt you in the way only the best stories can.