Title: Talking to Alaska
Author: Anna Woltz, translated by Laura Watkinson
Publisher: Bloomsbury Australia/Rock the Boat
Published: 4th May 2021
Synopsis: “A powerful story of two unlikely friends brought together by the love of a dog
It only takes one day at their new school for Parker and Sven to become mortal enemies. Parker’s had a terrible summer and just wants to be invisible, while Sven is desperate to make an impression and be known as anything other than “”that boy with epilepsy.””
When Parker discovers her beloved dog Alaska – who she had to give away last year – now belongs to Sven, she’s determined to steal Alaska back. Of course, that’s easier said than done…
Sven’s about to embark on a new chapter in his life after being diagnosed with epilepsy and is adjusting to this new reality. He has an assistance dog he calls the beast – he hates his new reality. He encounters Parker on his first day at school, a girl dealing wither own fear from an incident over the summer that has changed her family forever. Their first meeting doesn’t go well, and Parker is still reeling from having to give her dog, Alaska, up. And then she sees Alaska with Sven and his mother – her plan to steal him back will change everything for Sven and Parker – and maybe even bring them closer together as friends.
At its heart, this is a book about dealing with fear and uncertainty in an uncertain world. Both characters have had their lives drastically altered recently and are struggling to cope – but each seems to think the other shouldn’t be feeling the way they are. Parker wishes to be invisible – she doesn’t want people to notice her. This is contrasted with Sven – he wants people to see more than his epilepsy, and to understand that it is something he can’t control. They both face different kinds of fear and judgement. In Sven’s case, he feels judged for having an assistance dog because he doesn’t look disabled – epilepsy is an invisible disability with many unpredictable aspects, and reading through Anna’s website, I can see she did her research on assistance dogs and epilepsy, ensuring Sven’s experiences had a sense of being genuine. Epilepsy is a condition often ignored or left out of literature, and this is the first book I have read where epilepsy plays a central role, and I hope there will soon be some #OwnVoices books to come.
Fear is the key driver in this book that pulls Parker and Sven together in unusual circumstances and thus they begin to become friends – eventually understanding each other in a beautiful way that shows that dogs like Alaska can unite people and illustrates the importance of assistance dogs and what not to do around them. It allows Parker and Sven to tell their stories as it goes between the two and we come to understand how they feel about the world and each other, and from there, they form a friendship.
This was a touching novel that explored invisible disabilities like epilepsy and anxiety and being yourself in a world where everyone has their own quirks, and yet, these two endearing yet at times frustrating characters feel alone. I found things to love about Parker and Sven, and things that irritated me – this just made them more realistic, more believable because we are all like that. We all get frustrated and annoyed. We all feel fear. Anna has captured the essence of their fears eloquently and had produced a powerful story that will hopefully go towards helping to bring some understanding about epilepsy to the wider public, and to make people realise that there are also disabilities we can’t see that might need some assistance.
Alaska was the unifying aspect of the book, the solution to everything, almost, as Parker and Sven navigate a difficult year and a new, and at times, unsteady friendship. And don’t fret, the dog doesn’t die – instead, she’s vibrant and alive, and brings something special to the story that we all need: hope.