Told through the eyes of a highly unusual eight-year-old boy coping with grief and the disintegration of his remaining family members, Up High in the Trees is a poetic first effort by Kiara Brinkman. Sebby has a highly sophisticated, personal, and unique voice unusual for his age group, and the story is told an undetermined amount of time after his mother is struck dead by a car in the night. Sebby, like any young boy bereaved of his mother, struggles with his loss, and his dad takes him to the summer house to recuperate, only to fall into a deep depression in which he is unable to take care of himself, let alone his bright, inquisitive son.
Many people have speculated that Sebby is on the Autism Spectrum, probably high-functioning Asperger’s, and many passages (including his sensitivities to light, color, and sound) seem to hint at this. He is never diagnosed, which is just as well, but even for a precocious boy with Asperger’s, Sebby’s voice seems highly unlikely at times. Often he seems like a psychology graduate channeling their inner child rather than a true eight-year-old. However, if you get past the initial humps (Sebby seems too sophisticated for a little kid, the other characters are a bit too thinly defined) Up High in the Trees is a compelling read.
The chapters are short and often abstract, like a fragment of a passing thought or dream. That makes it very readable, since you can read a chapter or two on a bus ride and finish them in no time at all. Sebby often fails to engage with others, living in a gauzy world where he retraces his mothers steps and treads among her memories. He and his mother shared a private world together, and now his siblings and dad are flummoxed by his failure to grieve in a normal way. What is the ‘normal’ way to grieve, anyway? Hankies and tears? Hugs and sentiments? Sebby is removed from planet Earth as most know it, preferring to chase memories of his mother than other kids.
He finds solace in an old camera, which he uses to take pictures of life as it is- without Mother. I really rooted for the reconciliation of Sebastian and Katya, a slightly older Russian immigrant. I couldn’t figure out why he was so mad at her. She was was protective and kind and even forgave him when he bit her on the shoulder! Instead, Sebby pursues friendship with Jackson and Shelly, two under-supervised ragamuffin kids who seem to engage in a lot of risk-taking activities.
I would like to read anything further that Kiara Brinkman writes. In this flawed but well-done novel, she explores being wired different in a neurotypical world, bereavement, and the meaning of family. Sebby’s brood fray and very nearly fall apart, and I guess that not all was well before his mother’s death, either. But almost unraveling is what eventually puts them together and makes them stronger as a family. I hope you can derive inspiration from this brief but effective read.