Our If You Could See the Sun book review explores how Ann Liang gives us a different kind of dark academia book that is rooted in the true underbelly of elite education rather than Pinterest aesthetics.
I am a fan of many “dark academia” novels, with The Secret History by Donna Tartt being the best example of this genre I can think of. These books often show their characters exploring philosophical themes without getting too bogged down by morality, only to end by having some sort of reckoning. This sub-genre typically sports a surplus of tweed jackets and black coffee. However, dark academia is more than an aesthetic; in literature, it is meant to be an unapologetic look at the shadowy side of institutions, especially when they’re glamorized. Consumers of these books often come away desperately wanting their own larger-than-life college experience rather than finding a deeper understanding of the dangers inherent in the pursuit of knowledge at the cost of one’s morals.
The novel follows Alice, a young girl going to one of the most elite international schools in the world, located in Beijing. Life is not particularly easy for Alice, as she is often seen as a ‘foreigner’ in Beijing, despite having been born there and never feeling at home in an overwhelmingly white California. The school Alice attends is also incredibly affluent, as her classmates are children of models, CEOs, and other one-percenters, and Alice is decidedly not. In fact, Alice is the only scholarship kid in her entire school, and it makes her feel invisible. Then, one day, inexplicably, she actually turns invisible. This, of course, leads to a slew of hijinks and self-discovery with an academic rivals/enemies-to-lovers plot woven throughout.
Dark academia often comes up feeling incredibly empty thanks to the romanticization of (overwhelmingly white) classic literature and a surplus of Adderall addiction. Maybe the emptiness is an artistic choice, but that doesn’t make it a wise one. What’s worse, this sub-genre often unwittingly upholds the ideals of white supremacy. It is not uncommon for teenagers to read The Secret History, and rather than being abhorred by Henry Winter, they fall in love with him. They walk away with a desire to be in the friend group at Hampden College, wanting to wear the outfits and drink champagne out of tea pots, despite the moral corruption and eventual murder. It is only the immense privilege that characters like Henry Winter possess under white supremacy that give them the ability to have these experiences, something we should be critiquing rather than dreaming of. The dark in dark academia is not meant to allude to the kind of filter that should go over the photo of you studying in the library before you post it on Instagram, but rather the very real truth that there is great evil and imbalance in these institutions that claim to be so meritocratic. If You Could See the Sun handles these nuances beautifully.
The first point I want to draw your attention to in my If You Could See the Sun book review is that this story decenters whiteness. We have a mostly Chinese cast that is not living the immigrant experience by being the only few kids of color in an American school. While these stories are important, they are also forced to exist in opposition to whiteness. If You Could See the Sun gets to exist hardly thinking of whiteness at all. There are still themes of othering, as Alice experiences this both as someone who did not spend her whole childhood in Beijing but also as someone who is from a decidedly lower class than her peers. Additionally, we get to see higher-learning institutions that are not set in the northeast United States or the English countryside. This is an excellent reminder that higher learning institutions have always existed in the global East, and that white westerners did not pioneer the idea of academia.
If You Could See the Sun isn’t just special because it decenters whiteness, and saying that would unfortunately recenter whiteness in the conversation surrounding the book. It is also just a better version of this genre than we often see. When you finish reading The Secret History or If We Were Villains, you are still left with an undercurrent of romanticization and maybe some abstract ideas about where the moral boundary is; you are only ever shown the dark side of academia through a dreamy lens that in many ways glorifies suffering. If You Could See the Sun does not pull these punches. Instead, it allows the reader to take in the staggering inequalities of the institution it is set in, and it shows the consequences of the way our society has simultaneously made a student’s ability to learn their entire identity and something that hinges on how much privilege they have. Alice isn’t hurt by the institution she gives everything to because of a failed test or college rejection letter. She is hurt because she was forced into horrendous moral compromises by a school that didn’t care enough to make itself accessible to her. This is what dark academia means.
In our If You Could See the Sun book review, I also want to commend the deep character growth we see in this novel. The YA genre has a tendency to forsake emotional development in favor of trauma. We often see young people put through extraordinary circumstances by some outside evil and find that the resolution is just winning their war, whether literal or metaphorical. In If You Could See the Sun, we certainly get the victory we desperately want, but our main characters are as changed by their experience and are just as accountable for their part in the conflict as the villains. We see Alice reconciling with her unchecked ambition and our other central character Henry become aware of his immense privilege.
I don’t tend to give books star ratings, as it’s too difficult to form some kind of consistent measurement across genres, demographics, or even centuries, but this book deserves all the stars in the galaxy. Ann Liang does an excellent job creating a different kind of dark academia novel—one with substance. These heavy themes are also beautifully balanced with YA romance and speculative fiction, making an incredibly enjoyable read out of some of the harder truths of our society. I will be thinking about the main character Alice Sun and everything that took place in this story for a long time to come, and I believe that is the marker of a great book.
‘If You Could See the Sun’ published on October 11, 2022
This article was written by Subjectify contributor Megan Peterson. Look for more recommendations like this If You Could See the Sun book review on our books page.