Book review · Young adult

Review: The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé

32941909The Dark Beneath the Ice is an addicting f/f horror book, and so much more.
I loved it, I can already tell it will be in my list of favorites of 2018, and yet it did not scare me. Reviews, just like what scares a person, are heavily subjective, but it’s especially true for this one – this is an objectively scary book, for YA standards.
This book wasn’t scary to me because my reaction to almost everything the main character did or thought was, basically, “been there, done that”. And that’s also the main reason I loved it.

I tend to hate the “is she insane or is she magic” trope, I find it exploitative, it happens in stories that use the “scary” aspects of mental illnesses for shock value, but with a main character who – usually – turns out to not be mentally ill after all.

This book, however, didn’t feel like that. The Dark Beneath the Ice is a story about mental illness through paranormal lens, not a paranormal story that uses illnesses as a plot device.
Marianne is probably the character I’ve related to the most since I started reading. It’s like someone was looking at my experiences as a mentally ill teenage girl, and writing them using the paranormal as a metaphor. It was almost too much, and I definitely cried a few times. No, I’ve never been haunted, but the way this haunting manifested itself – it was like reading a paranormal version of my panic attacks.
I’ve read many books with main characters with anxiety disorders, and yet no book ever went there.
Panic attacks in YA books are always the same: the main character is scared, struggles to breathe, is shaking, and they may feel like they’re going to throw up. There’s nothing wrong with this, but there are so many other ways panic attacks can look, and The Dark Beneath the Ice is the first book I’ve read that seems to recognize this.

There are people who claw at their own skin without realizing it until the episodes goes away, there are people who start breaking things, there are people who blurt out things they don’t remember afterwards, who start shouting. A panic attack may also look like a person frozen, unable to move, staring ahead while screaming inside – and many of these aspects are mentioned or happen in this book; some of Marianne’s “paranormal episodes” manifested like this.
Also: this is the only book that seems to get the feeling of powerlessness that follows that kind of attack, which I haven’t seen in any other book with anxiety representation. The characters have panic attacks, which are horrible, and they’re fine afterwards. What about the crushing feeling that you did it again and can’t control yourself, and maybe you did it in public, and people noticed it – when appearing ordinary is your main strategy for survival? It’s in this book, and I never saw it anywhere else.

And yes, I do consider this representation, because the horror is tied to Marianne’s mental illnesses, but Marianne is ill before and after the paranormal episodes, and also has other symptoms, like spirals of thoughts she can’t escape, or being so critical of herself she can’t see anything but the faults, the flaws, so much that it turns into self-hate. Or the idea that no one ever wants to hear her talk, that no one wants to remember she exists, that she should isolate herself and disappear and everyone will be better if she does that.
[I’m surprised I had never seen this aspect in books about mental illness with female main characters. I suppose it’s not uncommon seeing how little women and their opinions are valued.]

Another reason I really liked this representation of MIs is that, while we didn’t go through the same things, Marianne’s unhealthy coping mechanisms reminded me of many things I have done. Trying to achieve invisibility to avoid conflict – I’ve been there. The “you can’t harass a ghost” quote made me feel a lot of things. That’s also why I knew the ending from the start, I saw it coming, and I don’t care. I have done this, what happens is in no way a mystery to me, paranormal metaphors or not.

A spoiler-y paragraph about the themes:

I think that at its heart this book is about how hiding (self-drowning), as a coping mechanism, turns you into your own worst enemy. And that’s something I can definitely relate to. You can’t be bullied if you’re invisible, but you internalize that everything will be better that way. And you also become a perfectionist, because flaws make you stand out and you can’t stand out, it’s survival. (Doing things well doesn’t make you stand out, if that’s what people always expected from you).
Hiding may work for a short time but it hurts in the long run. I still have to remind myself every day that I have the right to exist in a physical space. The fact that this book ends with Marianne confronting someone instead of avoiding her problems means a lot to me, and I don’t think this book could have ended in a better way.

I also loved the nuanced portrayals of family, therapy and medication. Marianne’s parents, before the divorce, weren’t exactly unsupportive – they were supportive until she wanted to quit something, which I understand more than I’d like to. And this is the first paranormal book involving mental illnesses I’ve seen that completely avoids the “therapists and psychiatrists are evil” trope. The main character even takes medication (!) and has mixed experiences with it (it helps in some ways, with some side effects).

Also, it’s queer horror! With a f/f romance, and a main character who is very much into girls but doesn’t label herself! (and it’s not the classic “I don’t want to use the word bisexual”, it’s “I don’t know which label is right for me and it’s not important to me right now”, which. Can we stop acting like that’s somehow lesser or incomplete representation?). I also really liked the love interest: Rhiannon is a girl who has another way to shield herself from the outside – she basically built a persona – because high school is cruel, especially to marginalized girls.
[Marhiannon is the worst ship name ever though]

Anyway this book is one of my new favorites ever and I have highlighted and annotated so many parts of it I could go on and on about what I loved about it, but I think this is enough. I don’t know if this book will work as well for people who haven’t haven’t had experiences similar to mine; maybe they’ll find this annoying or boring or too weird – but all of this is also true of living with a mental illness. It’s annoying and scary, very ordinary and weird at the same time. It’s you, but it’s not, or maybe it is – and, like Marianne, you don’t always know whether to trust yourself.

My rating: ★★★★★

4 thoughts on “Review: The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé

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