Harley in the Sky – Book Review #Gifted
Happy book birthday to Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn Bowman! I am a huge fan of Akemi’s novels as she is a brilliant author and also a wonderful mental health advocate. Akemi’s outstanding debut Starfish released in 2017 and was followed by Summer Bird Blue in 2018. I highly recommend that you pick them up if you haven’t read them yet!
Harley in the Sky is a beautiful YA Contemporary novel about relationships, sacrifice and following your dreams. Harley has been born into the magical world of the circus at the Teatro della Notte. Her life is full of bright lights, mystery, costumes, colour and music. Unsurprisingly, Harley wants to remain a part of her families legacy as an aerialist rather than going to college. When Harley’s parents insist that she completes her education first and refuse her protestations her dreams are shattered. Heart-broken and unwilling to sacrifice her dreams, Harley betrays her family to join a rival circus Maison du Mystère. Thrown into a beautiful yet brutal world Harley has to come to terms with what she has done to get there and what she must be prepared to do to stay.
The protagonist of the novel is 18 year old Harley Yoshi Milano, who longs to be an aerialist. She is a wonderfully complex character who you can easily identify with. As an authentic teenager Harley can be very headstrong, emotional and lacks self-acceptance. Unlike some other teenagers, Harley also struggles with both identity issues and mental health problems.
Harley’s family play a small but very significant role in the novel. Her parents are both very realistic characters, with normal expectations. I found myself torn between Harley and her parents. I can understand both sides of the arguments and found myself angry at both sides at various points in the story. That said, I connected very deeply with Harley on some of the issues raised and found the novel to be a very emotional read at times.
Popo, Harley’s grandmother, is a lovely character who provides a lot of support for her granddaughter. She sees Harley for who she is and understands that sometimes we have to make our own choices even if they turn out to be a mistake. It is important that we all have someone in our lives who can listen without judging and who can set their own feelings aside to help us. It is very interesting to learn more about Harley’s family as the novel progresses.
Harley meets a vast array of diverse characters throughout the novel. I love Vivien, Dexi, Vas, Jin and Maggie. They all play very different roles in the story but sufficed to say that having some real friends can make the world a very different place. There is also a well-written, slow burn romance which I really enjoyed.
There are a lot of themes in Harley in the Sky including family, relationships, labels, guilt, identity, mental health and music.
Identity is a key theme in Harley in the Sky, as it has been in the author’s previous novels. Akemi sensitively explores the issue of racial identity through Harley who has biracial parents and often struggles to define herself. Sadly, she feels that she often is forced to erase part of her identity in order to fit in “I wish I could feel like I was all four parts at once, instead of different parts at different times”. Her cultural heritage is important to her family and to Harley but she also wants to be able to blend in. Harley doesn’t want to be judged based on her appearance or her name.
Secondly, Harley doesn’t quite fit in at the circus as she is there but doesn’t have a defined role, hence her longing to be an aerialist. Part of her dream I’m sure is so that she has a label and knows where she belongs.
Finally, Harley in the Sky is a journey of self-exploration and Harley both deciding and coming to terms with who she is. A key part of this is her feeling that she can be herself rather than being forced to be someone else for the sake of others.
It is clear throughout the novel that Harley suffers with mental health issues. As she swings from manic episodes into depression and back again, the suggestion is that she may suffer with undiagnosed Bipolar Disorder. Akemi intentionally doesn’t use any labels in the novel and it opens up an interesting discussion about how labels may affect people who are unable to get a formal diagnosis. Not everyone has access to mental health services for a variety of reasons but this should not invalidate them and their needs.
Music always plays a part in Akemi’s novels. It is often used as a form of expression or a personal sanctuary for her characters. I love how Akemi writes about music “Because the violin and its beautiful music belong only to him.” It is emotional, soulful and a motif I always look for.
I loved every moment of Harley in the Sky. The novel is well-paced and easy to read. It is an emotional roller-coaster and hard-hitting in parts. The magical setting of the circus is wonderfully vibrant and has a memorable richness to it. Akemi’s characters are diverse, realistic and detailed. Harley is a perfectly composed, complex protagonist who draws the reader into her personal journey. I cannot praise Akemi enough for how well she handles difficult topics. She doesn’t shy away from discussing, in particular, family relationships and mental health. I know that there are readers out there who this novel will mean an awful lot to. I am one of them.
Have you read any of Akemi’s novels? Which is your favourite so far?
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