Leah Hager Cohen’s new novel, No Book but the World, takes its title from a quote by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Ava and her younger brother, Fred, were raised by progressive parents who followed Rousseau’s “free” education and parenting model, letting their children discover the world on their own and without inhibitions or formal constrictions. Memories of their imaginative childhood in the woods flood forth as an adult Ava visits the town where her brother is now in jail. Ava recollects Fred’s oddities—his broken speech, his raging tantrums, his aversion to eye contact and touch—but also his focus, his empathy, his innocence. With a 12-year-old boy dead and news accounts suggesting her brother is responsible, Ava races to piece together a story that she feels only she can tell—one of misunderstanding, but also of deep fraternal love.
Amid the suspense, Cohen’s new novel is also a coming-of-age story that examines the pressures of following in familial footsteps. Though Fred lives out his father’s experiment in the woods with almost no formal schooling, Ava begs to attend school—the first of many decisions that eventually estrange her from her father. Yet Ava can’t fully separate herself from her upbringing, and is not wholly of one world or the other.
No Book but the World gives readers ideas to chew on every step of the way, questioning the obligations we have to our families, the struggle to love people who are difficult to love, the ways the stories we tell ourselves about our experiences affect our understanding of other people’s actions, and the tension between freedom and societal norms. A captivating look at the unwavering focus and innocence of children and the capacity of memory, No Book but the World is the work of a masterful storyteller.