Book Review: Save Me, Kurt Cobain

save me kurt cobain cover

Manzer, Jenny. Save Me, Kurt Cobain. New York: Delacorte Press, 2016. Print.

In high school I loved frogs, Total Request Live, posters of Volkswagen Beetles, and Nirvana.

Thirteen years have passed. I still love Nirvana.

I wouldn’t christen myself a die-hard fan, nor do I have an encyclopedic knowledge of all their albums or band members or set lists. But there’s something about the music that has always appealed to me—an attraction to the sound and lyrics that I’ve had trouble putting into words.

Until I read Jenny Manzer’s Save Me, Kurt Cobain. Manzer perfectly describes Nirvana as a mixture of loud and quiet, painful lyrics mixed with childlike prose. And the way the band weaves throughout Manzer’s narrative made me an even bigger fan.

Protagonist Nicola “Nico” Cavan has a gaping hole in her life: her mother, Annalee, vanished when Nico was only four. Despite exhaustive searches and police investigations, her whereabouts remain a mystery. Now a teenager, Nico feels numb and unhappy. She is largely ignored at school and spends her free time listening to music with her sole friend, Obe, and drawing portraits in her sketchbook. Nico’s father, Verne, works extra shifts at his college security job, and there’s a growing distance between father and daughter.

Nico’s apathy toward her father turns to rage when she discovers a parcel hidden in the attic: a collection of albums belonging to her mother. Nirvana dominates this collection, and Nico also discovers an old polaroid snapshot of Annalee and a not-yet-famous Kurt Cobain. Nico was a fan beforehand, but after this discovery she sinks into a spiral of obsessive research and reading, scouring biographies, Nirvana message boards, and conspiracy theories claiming Cobain’s suicide was a murder or fabrication. Returning from a visit with her aunt in Seattle, Nico finds herself on a ferry seated across from a man who bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Kurt Cobain. Nico knows she must act quickly and, moments later, she fenagles her way into the backseat of the stranger’s car.  Is this man the real Kurt Cobain? If so, does he remember anything about Nico’s mother? Can he possibly help solve the mystery of Annalee’s disappearance?

The symbolism in this novel took my breath away. The parallels between Kurt Cobain’s life and Nico’s—the art, love of music, rejection of social norms, depression, early traumatic experiences—were astounding. Cobain’s mysterious death is also reminiscent of Annalee’s disappearance, and both leave Nico craving answers. The recitation of Cobain facts serves as something of a security blanket for Nico, and she turns to them during stressful or tremulous moments. Careful readers will appreciate the consistency and detail found in Save Me, Kurt Cobain.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, the setting was sometimes hard to visualize. Nico travels from Canada to the States and back via ferry, walks across shorelines and highways, and sometimes finds herself on unmarked roads. As I am unfamiliar with Seattle and Canada, I sometimes felt a bit lost, though this could have very well been Manzer’s intention.

I could certainly see Save Me, Kurt Cobain being a high-interest text, especially for students who love music. Many other YA texts share this theme of protagonists clinging to certain musicians or songs (Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star immediately come to mind) so perhaps this could be an option in a larger unit involving literature circles and student choice. Nico is a main character who struggles profoundly with sadness but ultimately perseveres, making her a realistic heroine that students will relate to and love.