This is a challenging review to write because while I enjoyed every minute of Liesl & Po and felt a warm sense of comfort upon finishing it, I've had time to reflect further & find that there's some overall elements that don't truly merit 4 stars.
On one hand, Oliver earns every single star for her beautiful prose & what I found to be a very comforting vision of life after death. Her version of Heaven (Beyond) and limbo (The Other Side) were conjured so gently & imaginatively. Like many of us, I have an almost crippling fear of death but if it's anything like the way Oliver writes it, I'm not half as scared as I usually am. The whole journey with Liesl, Po, Bundle, Will, and the secondary cast of characters was just really really lovely and unrushed and both melancholy and hopeful.
"The chances I will see him again are next to nothing," Po said. The ghost did not want the girl to get her hopes up. It might not even recognize Liesl's father if it saw him again; by then, Liesl's father might not recognize himself. He might have begun to blur, letting infinity tug on him gently from all sides, like sand being pulled by an eternal tide. He might have already begun the process of becoming part of Everything. He would begin to feel the electricity of distant stars pulsing through him like a heartbeat. He would feel the weight of old planets on his shoulders, and he would feel the winds of distant corners of the universe blowing through him."
Also, I absolutely adored Po's animal companion named Bundle. I guess if I have to imagine what it's like after I die, I hope I have a Bundle, flickering ahead, Mwark!-ing gently at me while turning circles, and wrapping his essence around me when I need comfort.
On the other hand, after I've had a few days to reflect, I find that while the plot is rather formulaic (sweet young girl is orphaned after her father's death & left in the hands of her evil stepmother. She escapes, ghosts appear, mix-ups occur, coincidences happen, friendships are made, and challenges are met), the lack of deeper characterization bothered me some. It's narrated in 3rd person and while it gives the prose a luminous quality (given the subject matter), it sort of prevents any deeper exploration of any of the characters. Don't get me wrong, the good ones are very likeable & sympathetic, and the bad ones are easy to dislike, but I'd have enjoyed knowing more about Liesl & Will & Po's feelings.
There were also a few key elements left unanswered & I found that's what I was focusing on as I reflected on the story in the days after finishing it. The unanswered things bothered me more than the lack of characterization, actually. For all the fleshing out of the afterworld that Oliver did, I wish she'd given herself more space to round out a few of the more curious mysteries in the story.
Overall, there's really no big message or hidden meaning in the book. It's just a really lovely adventure about people dealing with loss, easing loneliness, and finding their way forward. And sometimes, especially in a middle-grade book like this, I think that might be enough. Oliver herself has said that this book was a way to heal after the death of a dear friend.
“Additionally, Liesl and Po is the embodiment of what writing has always been for me at its purest and most basic--not a paycheck, certainly; not an idea, even; and not an escape. Actually, it is the opposite of an escape; it is a way back in, a way to enter and make sense of a world that occasionally seems harsh and terrible and mystifying." (from her author's note at the end of the book).
“People need other people to feel things for them," she said. "It gets lonely to feel things all by yourself.”
“She liked the word ineffable because it meant a feeling so big or vast that it could not be expressed in words. And yet, because it could not be expressed in words, people had invented a word to express it, and that made Liesl feel hopeful, somehow.”