Bright rites of pas­sage Young Adult Fic­tion

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS -

Claire Hen­nessy

No adult could ever pos­si­bly be as world­weary as an ar­tic­u­late teenager. The un­named nar­ra­tor of Meg Rosoff’s lat­est novel, The Great God­den (Blooms­bury. £12.99), of­fers up this take on be­ing the el­dest of four: “I found liv­ing with so many opin­ions and so many com­pet­ing streams of anx­i­ety ex­haust­ing. Ex­ams, sex, body im­age, food, grades; some­one was always in cri­sis. Some­times in a big fam­ily you needed to claim some­thing to make a mark. Eat­ing dis­or­der, anx­i­ety, nar­cis­sism, ponies. Any­thing would do.”

Later in this book we get this gem: “When peo­ple ex­press nos­tal­gia for youth, I always sus­pect they have in­ad­e­quate re­call.”

Rosoff, best known for her de­but How I Live Now, has won al­most ev­ery pres­ti­gious prize for YA fic­tion; she writes about sex, death, love and an­i­mals with a seem­ingly light touch that be­lies the ul­ti­mate emo­tional im­pact of her sto­ries. You never quite know what you’re go­ing to get, but you can trust that it will stay with you. In this lat­est, it’s not just the be­liev­ably jaded tone that makes an im­pact – it’s the way Rosoff bal­ances it, ex­pertly, with the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of first love (or lust).

The ob­ject of the nar­ra­tor’s af­fec­tions is Kit God­den, an ap­par­ently golden boy from Cal­i­for­nia whose skin is “lit from within as if he’d spent hours ab­sorb­ing sun­light only to slow-re­lease it back into the world”. When he and his brother ar­rive in the sea­side vil­lage, it’s a sign that this par­tic­u­lar fam­ily sum­mer hol­i­day will not be like all the oth­ers.

The “how” of that is deftly ex­e­cuted, un­furl­ing qui­etly and pre­cisely into some­thing far messier than a sum­mer ro­mance. It’s beau­ti­fully done, and a se­ri­ous con­tender for the best YA novel of the year.

Given that it is sum­mer, how­ever, breezier ti­tles are very wel­come, and Si­mon James Green’s Heart­break Boys (Scholas­tic, £7.99) is an up­lift­ing ro­man­tic com­edy with two won­der­fully re­lat­able he­roes. The “Big Gay Soap Opera” of their lives kicks off at the school prom, right af­ter GCSEs; it turns out that their re­spec­tive boyfriends have been sneak­ing around be­hind their backs.

For Nate, who’s just come out to the school min­utes be­fore, it’s dev­as­tat­ing. For Jack, who be­lieves in be­ing “fab­u­lous in the face of ad­ver­sity”, it’s an op­por­tu­nity: how can they get back at their exes and also take the first step into in­ter­net fame? The an­swer is clearly a shared In­sta­gram ac­count that will doc­u­ment what an amaz­ing life is be­ing had de­spite all the heart­break. “Me and you, on the road to­gether!” Jack en­thuses. “How do our fol­low­ers know that road is re­ally the A46 to the arse-end of nowhere?”

Green is par­tic­u­larly good at de­pict­ing the cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance in­volved in us­ing so­cial me­dia; the boys de­lib­er­ately stage the pic­tures they share but still re­spond emo­tion­ally to the im­ages posted by their for­mer loves. There’s no preach­ing here, just empathy; the same goes for the dif­fer­ing at­ti­tudes Jack and Nate have to com­ing out. This is sun­shine in a book; it will make your world brighter.

Lucy Cuthew, who has writ­ten nu­mer­ous books for chil­dren, both fic­tion and ed­u­ca­tional, steps into YA with a highly topi­cal verse novel, Blood Moon (Walker Books, £7.99). The ti­tle ref­er­ences not only the pro­tag­o­nist’s pas­sion for astron­omy but the ab­surd yet very real shame and ig­no­rance that still ex­ists around men­stru­a­tion. Frankie’s pe­riod be­gins in the mid­dle of her first in­ti­mate en­counter with a lovely boy; it’s a tad mor­ti­fy­ing but not the end of the world. But then the story spreads – along with a graphic meme that leaves Frankie feel­ing poi­soned, full of her “own toxic waste”.

The boy in ques­tion, of course, has “never been more pop­u­lar”, and this doesn’t help this frag­ile new re­la­tion­ship. To make mat­ters worse, Frankie’s best friend may have been the one to cre­ate the meme.

The frag­mented na­ture of the verse lends it­self to de­pict­ing the vi­cious­ness of public sham­ing, and there’s a dev­as­tat­ing mo­ment when Frankie’s mum sees it: “all I can think is:/ how is she/ go­ing to love me/ af­ter this?” There is, for­tu­nately, a hope­ful (if slightly im­plau­si­ble) end­ing, in which laugh­ter and hon­esty and re­fus­ing to give into bul­lies mightn’t erase what’s hap­pened, but can ease the sting of it.

For some teenagers, ro­man­tic en­tan­gle­ments are the last thing on their mind. In Tracy Darn­ton’s sec­ond thriller, The Rules (Lit­tle Tiger, £7.99), Am­ber goes on the run when she learns her fa­ther – an abu­sive sur­vival­ist con­stantly wait­ing for an apoc­a­lyp­tic event – is back in the coun­try and look­ing for her. Both she and the reader know that it’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore he finds her; her rules for sur­vival are the ones he in­vented. This tense, taut novel is chill­ingly be­liev­able.

In con­trast, Pa­trick Neate’s Small Town Hero (An­der­sen Press, £7.99) ques­tions the very na­ture of re­al­ity, with pro­tag­o­nist Gabe ca­pa­ble of slip­ping in and out of dif­fer­ent uni­verses. (The mul­ti­verse is a strange but won­der­ful mini-trend this year.) Foot­ball and on­line gam­ing also come into play as Gabe tries, un­suc­cess­fully, to pre­vent the ac­ci­dent that led to his fa­ther’s death, and un­cov­ers a long­stand­ing fam­ily se­cret.

De­spite the cool con­cept, the real strength of this novel is in Gabe’s en­dear­ing, smart voice. “I don’t know if adults know this,” he says, “but half the time they ask a ques­tion, they do it in a way that tells you the an­swer they want to hear. So you give them that an­swer be­cause it’s eas­ier. But it makes you won­der what the ques­tion was for in the first place.”

When char­ac­ters spring to life like this, even the most ex­tra­or­di­nary, logic-de­fy­ing events feel pos­si­ble.

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