Griff and I have a lot in common. We both have a mild Harry Potter obsession; Ron is our favourite member of the heroic trio and we’re both affected by Cedric Diggory’s death more than we think we should be. We also spend a lot of time in our heads, and we both compulsively count. Like Griff, I rely on counting to ease my anxiety. Even numbers are my friends, but I’m not a fan of multiples of six. I avoid the number six as much as I can. The only odd numbers I like are multiples of five and I will sometimes do things more times than I need to if it means getting to a number I feel happy with. That can be small things like switching off a light or shutting a door, but those small things, those habits we allow to build, they can grow into something far less manageable and that is what threatens to happen in History is All You Left Me when Griff’s ex-boyfriend and best friend, Theo, dies unexpectedly.
Griff’s been managing to live with the compulsions that frame his life but Theo’s death challenges the world he thought he knew, and to ground himself he throws himself further into them. Through his teens he’s grown to see his quirks as a part of what makes him unique, but as they worsen they stop feeling like quirks.
Death isn’t supposed to intrude on the high school experience. With Theo gone, Griff reflects on their defining moments. The first time they confessed their feelings, the first time they kissed, their break up. But without Theo to correct him it’s tempting to re-write history.
Grief is hard enough, but Theo’s new boyfriend, Jackson is in New York for the funeral, and his presence sparks the feelings of jealousy and inadequacy that Griff has desperately tried to bury. He has a choice, to reach out to the only other person who can understand what he’s going through or push him away. Theo’s death blindsides him, and his responses are erratic. The maturity he displays in reaching out to Jackson, making a truce when grief could twist into something bitter, is offset by his self-destructive behaviour.
It wasn’t always easy to follow his thoughts or his actions, and there were times when it seemed like he was being unfair to those around him, particularly to Wade, his remaining friend. But then the book is as much about regret as it is about grief, and those moments when he didn’t say what he wanted to, when he acted out against others, are the moments he looks back on and wishes he could change.
Grief isn’t rational, it doesn’t makes sense, and it’s an entirely personal experience. Whether Griff and Jackson helped each other in the long run is something that can’t be measured in weeks or days. Their mirrored grief was comforting, but it also allowed them to fixate, and alienate themselves from the stabilising elements of family and friends.
A special mention to Griff’s parents, whose marriage has only strengthened over time. It’s understandable that their harmonious relationship has given Griff high expectations about love. Through the book, Griff realises that there is no clear path to love. Puzzle pieces might fit together at one point, but time and distance can warp their shape. History is All You Left Me is story about first love, grief and coping mechanisms. It’s about the comfort of the familiar and the danger than comes with it. It’s about the shared history between us, and what we can learn from it.