August 18, 2010

Nothing: Review

"Nothing matters. I have known that for a long time. So nothing is worth doing. I just realized that." When Pierre Anthon decides there is no meaning to life, he climbs up a plum tree and won't come back down. Determined to prove him wrong, his classmates begin a game of making each other give up the one item they care about the most. At first it's small things - a fishing rod, a soccer ball, a pair of green sandals - but soon the items escalate in value. Yet the quest for meaning continues despite the price being paid, all to one end: show Pierre Anthon that some things do matter. When he sees what they have given up, will he finally admit that they are right? And if he does - will it make any difference?

Nothing is a book that makes you think. There are a whole host of deep issues and questions raised in this book that you'll be pondering long after you've finished it. It's simple and gripping and twisted.

Questions continually bubble to the surface as you read this book. What would you most hate to lose in your life? How would you react if someone took it away from you? What if it was something you could never get back? How do you define 'meaning' - and can you put a price on it? Does everyone know when something is significant?


The tale is told from the point of view of Agnes, one of several Grade 7 students in a class in the fictional town of Taering, Denmark. We don't find out until a few chapters in who the narrator is (or even if it is a boy or a girl), which distracted me a bit. However, Agnes does an excellent job narrating this type of story. Ordinarily I would wish for a closer understanding of the protagonist - we don't really get much of a sense of her personality - but the point of the book isn't Agnes. It isn't even Pierre Anthon. Agnes distances herself from the action, takes her role out of it, and in this way we see how each individual contributes as a member of a group. She speaks in 'we' form repeatedly, emphasizing a singular plural nature, as though all the children thought as one entity. While I would have liked to have seen how Agnes individually reacted to some of the events, I see how it might have taken away from the tone and message. Also, Agnes' distanced tone ratchets up the mysterious and disturbing nature of everything that unfolds.

Writing style:

Generally, the writing style worked really well to hook the reader in and keep them reading. It's meant to be a bit of a thriller, in a way, and I found myself needing to finish it so I knew the ending. The one aspect of the writing style I didn't like was when synonyms or comparative/superlative adjectives were used - they seemed sort of out of place. For instance, "Blue. Bluer. Bluest." If this had happened a few times, I probably wouldn't have minded so much, but she did it to the point of excess, where it ceased to pack a powerful punch.

Of course, this is translated from the Danish, so that may explain it.


The plot is simple but effective, but I wasn't too clear on the ending. No spoilers here, but I was left with some questions about exactly what happened. However, given what the book was about...perhaps that was intentional?

Also, there is some suspension of disbelief required on the part of the reader. Otherwise, all the practical sorts of questions will start occurring to you. Like, how is it feasible for Pierre Anthon to stay in the plum tree for months (without starving?) Where do his parents and teachers think he is? Where are all the other kids' parents, and aren't they getting suspicious about items going missing? However, do your best to ignore these practical concerns - they'll just distract you from an otherwise extremely engaging read. And anyway, if the author had mentioned all of those nitpicky details, it would have somehow lessened the impact of the important elements of the story.


So many topics are tackled in this short book: the innocence of children, or lack thereof as the case may be; the desire to be right, regardless of the consequences; the fleeting nature of our own mortality; the desperate need for meaning in our lives. Best of all, Janne Teller isn't preachy - indeed, I'm not at all sure that she's even trying to send a particular message in her novel. I think if anything, the author just wanted to get her readers to question their beliefs about life, death, friendship, and meaning.

Creepy factor:

Nothing's been compared to Lord of the Flies, but I'd say that it's more. Yes, it deals with issues of peer pressure, of children's behaviour snowballing out of control, and there is no parental influence to be found - but with Lord of the Flies I was just sickened, disgusted, and depressed. I felt all those emotions with Nothing too, but I got a good deal more out of it. It speaks to larger philosophical and psychological issues, and it handles them in a way that is less clear-cut than Lord of the Flies. It was pretty obvious what William Golding's point was; Janne Teller is a little more ambiguous.

That said, I have to say this is the most disturbing book I've read in quite a while. It is a YA but I would only recommend it to older readers of that age range. I could see this book having a stronger emotional impact than a lot of books that contain much more violence (and this book definitely contains some). Would definitely NOT read it before bed either!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 shooting stars. Read if you want to think hard about philosophical questions and be creeped out psychologically. NOT for younger readers.


  1. I'm kind of a chicken, so the fact that it's so disturbing concerns me a bit, yet from everything else you've said about this novel I think I'm going to have to suck it up and give it a go. Your review was so insightful - I love how you break it down into the different aspects. I really love reads that make you think, and it sounds like this book does just that. Great review! Thank you!

  2. Hey! I'm finally getting a chance to check out your blog (you posted on mine last week) and I'm loving it. Nothing is one that I've been dying to read!

  3. Sounds good! I hadn't heard of this one before, but it's definitely going to have to go on my list. The cover is super creepy, too.

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone!

  5. Very nice review! I don't like to think too much when I read (most of the time) so I'll probably sit this one out.

  6. Great review! I just wanted to say thanks for visiting my blog and I'm super glad you felt the same about Beautiful Creatures; I was really nervous about posting such a negative review!

  7. Great review. I just put this book on my list today. After such a great review I can't wait to read it.

  8. Visiting from the bloghop. Thanks for sharing your review

  9. Wow! I've never read Lord of the Flies. And me and English Major. Anyway, I think I may read this one. I just don't see the psychological drama of a boy hanging in a tree while kids give up their things. My answer to what I couldn't or wouldn't give up is my family. If it goes that far, then I can understand. But I'd love to read a book that pushes the limits that far.
    Great review!

    hopped over from the blog hop! Hop back when you get a chance!

  10. You sure analyzed this book well here. A very helpful review indeed! I read Lord of the Flies and really didn't like it. I'm not very big on disturbing ambiguous books so think I'll pass on this one.

    Stopping by from the Hop--thanks for visiting us!


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