Nashville young-adult author Helene Dunbar doesn’t pull any punches in her new novel, What Remains. The story belongs to Cal, a sixteen-year-old who’s had the same steadfast friends, Lizzie and Spencer, since first grade, and he faces a bright future playing baseball. When a tragic car accident almost costs him his life, Cal is forced to reckon with his grief, guilt, and a new, unfamiliar existence he’s not convinced he even wants.
In the book’s early pages, the three teenagers celebrate Lizzie’s birthday at a sleepover in their school’s theater. Spencer, “the word guy,” makes a toast: “You guys are my best friends in the entire world, and I don’t know what I’d do without you.” To Lizzie he adds, “I hope you know how much we love you.” But later, when Spencer and Lizzie zip their sleeping bags together, Cal thinks, “This is what happens when you’re three best friends. Two are always together and one is always on the outside.”
He doesn’t feel left out exactly, but he’s aware that something has shifted: their easy, calm relationship has been interrupted, and Cal grapples with his newfound jealousy and doubts. “This, this, this,” he repeats in his head like a mantra. “This is right.”
Then one day everything goes wrong. On the way home from taking the SAT, Cal is at the wheel as Spencer and Lizzie vie for control over the radio, when an SUV flies across the median, heading straight toward them. Despite what he’s heard about life-or-death situations, “Time doesn’t slow down,” Cal finds himself thinking. He doesn’t have time to say a word.
When he awakens, it’s to a new reality and a pain he’s never imagined. Haunted by happy memories, he doesn’t know what to do, or say. He wants the safety of sleep, of nothingness, but he can’t remain unconscious. Cal’s struggle is personal, and it makes him vulnerable, but it does not make him pitiful.
Dunbar masterfully illuminates the novel’s emotional threads with grace, just as she did in in her first YA book, These Gentle Wounds, which earned critical acclaim for conveying, without heavy-handedness, the inner workings of a teenager unmoored by tragedy. In What Remains, Dunbar succeeds again at drawing readers into a narrative colored by dimensional, complicated characters. She teases out this story, balancing plot and feeling with a protagonist who comes across as wholly human.
[Editor’s note: this review has been changed to correct plot-point errors in the original publication.]
Sarah Norris holds an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College and has reviewed books for The Daily Beast, Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, and Village Voice, among other publications. She lives in Nashville.