Kiri Byrd, the protagonist in Hilary T. Smith’s debut novel, is a gifted 17-year-old pianist living in Vancouver. She practices relentlessly, almost compulsively. When she’s not at the piano, she’s in her best friend Lukas’s basement getting ready for the Battle of the Bands. She’s the kind of responsible, trustworthy teen whose parents feel comfortable leaving her alone while they go on a cruise, and Kiri is looking forward to spending time with Lukas (on whom she has a huge crush).
But beneath Kiri’s perfect surface lies a brewing storm. The catalyst arrives in the form of a phone call from a stranger who claims to have items belonging to Kiri’s beloved, troubled sister, Sukey, who died in an apparent accident years earlier.
As details emerge about Sukey’s life (and death), Kiri is forced to grapple with family secrets thickened by years of silence and denial, as well as her own reactions to what happened. Aided by plenty of alcohol and marijuana, her world explodes in both good ways and bad. New love enters the picture and she finds kindness in dark, unexpected places, but she’s also in danger of spiralling out of control.
In Kiri, Smith has created a character who pulses with life. Her biting teenage wit, ability to be both wise and completely lost, and impulsive bravery make for a vibrant, utterly believable character. The story is well crafted and intense, and brings back the feeling of being 17 – the outrage, the energy, the belief that the truth will heal everything.
The city of Vancouver gets a starring role thanks to the realistic portrayal of both its gentrified residential enclaves and the grit of the Downtown Eastside, where Sukey spent her last days. The detail conveyed in the setting, the achingly beautiful character of Kiri, and Smith’s evocative prose style come together to form a YA novel that offers no easy answers and makes no apologies, but will lift and excite readers.