Review: The Bright Unknown by Elizabeth Byler Younts

This is a book that sat in my NetGalley tbr for far too long. I have no idea why I kept skipping it for others, and it’s now one of the best books I’ve read this year.

What it’s about:

From the Goodreads description:

The only kind of life Brighton Turner understands is the one she has endured within the dreary walls of a rural Pennsylvania asylum. A nurse has thoughtfully educated and raised Brighton, but she has also kept vital information from her in order to keep her close. Brighton befriends a boy whom she calls Angel—he doesn’t know his name—and as the two of them learn more about what lies beyond the walls they call home, they fight for their release and eventually escape. However, the world outside the only place they’ve ever known is not what they expect. They have no real names, no money, and no help—and they must rely upon the kindness of strangers as they walk and hitchhike from Pennsylvania to Michigan to find their last hope of a home.

Although the blurb doesn’t mention it, this book is actually presented in dual timelines: Brighton’s life growing up in the asylum reads as memories while grown-up Brighton, now called Nell, tries to deal with her past 50 years later.

My thoughts:

First, The Bright Unknown is beautifully written. It’s descriptive (painfully so at times) and well-paced, with a fully realized character in Brighton. I truly felt like I grew up with her, and felt her feelings right along with her. The characters of Nursey, Angel, and Grace are also well-drawn and authentic. The story feels researched and very much within its time historically. I’ve not read any other books by this author, but I will most definitely be looking for more of her work.

I really appreciated the way the author dealt with the harsh reality of how people with mental illnesses and people on the fringes of society were treated in our institutions in the not-so-distant past. The book is gritty and heartbreaking, and even though poor Brighton has never known anything but Riverside, and the patients and staff there are her friends and family, the reader truly feels the horror, neglect, and sadness of the poor souls trapped within its walls. I think this quote near the end, from grown-up Nell, perfectly summarizes my feelings having finished the book:

“Don’t forget that thousand of souls lived and died there and were ostracized by society. Many are buried in the back corner because no one claimed their bodies. Don’t forget the history of what has happened at Riverside and other facilities like it, and don’t let history repeat itself. And when you meet someone who might struggle with mental illness, see the person behind the frightened eyes. Not just the diagnosis.”

Even when Brighton and Angel are able to escape, they have a long way to go both physically and emotionally on their own in the world for the first time. There are times that things outside seem even less hopeful and bleak than things were in the asylum. Thankfully, the endings of both timelines were uplifting and positive… I needed that in my life right now!

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, coming-of-age stories that don’t shy away from the darker side of society. If you’re anything like me, you will need to have some tissues handy, though. It’s a powerful story that will take your heart apart and still leave you hopeful.


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