The Whispers is, by turns, tender, sweet and confusing. 11-year-old Riley is confused and sad and we know right from the beginning he has secrets to which he is holding tightly, afraid to reveal them to anyone–even himself. Floundering in his own mind NOT to think about those secret thoughts that try to break out of the space in his head where has locked them down, Riley latches onto the old story of The Whispers that his mother told him when he was small. In the story The Whispers are magical fairies who will grant you your heart’s desire if you leave them a tribute (a gift). Four months before we meet Riley, his mother has disappeared. Riley and his mother had been nearly inseparable. His deepest wish is to bring her back.
Riley begins to consider that maybe The Whispers are real and the only way to get his mother back is to try and find them so they will grant his wish. As he tries to find The Whispers, Riley is also trying to come to terms with aspects of who he is, based on his own thoughts and feelings, the behavior of his father and brother, and what he has been told in church.
Here’s what I loved about The Whispers: (1) Riley is an authentic, fully developed character; (2) the story of Riley’s gradual acknowledgement and tentative (or implied) acceptance of his homosexuality is written beautifully, offering those of us who have never experienced it an empathetic window into this often painfully difficult–due to others’ reaction and judgment–path; and (3) the compassionate way in which his friends and family surround him when he finally allows himself to think about the things he has kept pushed aside.
Despite these positive attributes, however, there were bigger issues for me in the plotting of Riley’s story. The reader discovers in the beginning that Riley is keeping some information back about his mother’s disappearance. My problem with this device is that, for me, when it is revealed at the end of the story (although I realized what it was early on in the novel) it feels disingenuous on the part of the author. (I don’t think it was; I think the author was trying to use a literary device to make the final impact of his story bigger.) It felt, to me, similar to when the author of a mystery purposely skews the information the reader receives in order to lead us in a specifically wrong direction. Although I didn’t buy this implied direction for very long, I still resented the fact that the author tried to do it. My second issue with this same aspect is that I feel like it distracts from Riley’s actual story, which is quite moving and important to tell. My third issue with The Whispers is the way in which the author transitions into the climactic scene: instead of finding a way for Riley to move with the reader through the difficult moment of discovery, the author chooses to have Riley lose consciousness and everything just begins falling into place in his mind once he regains it. I also did not like the death of a character that I felt was unnecessary, but the author clearly thought was a convenient device to position Riley’s character where he needed to be to achieve the ending the author intended.
While The Whispers is really the best (and maybe only) book I have ever read that so clearly and compassionately tells a young boy’s realization and acceptance of his sexuality as simply a part of who he is as a person, some of the heavy-handed plot devices put unnecessary barriers between Riley and myself as a reader. I prefer stories that allow me to either journey with a character, or be allowed to be present in all aspects of his/her story as an observer. For these reasons, The Whispers was only a 3 star read for me.