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Time loops, coercive control, murder and magic: The best new young-adult fiction

Claire Hennessy reviews new fiction by Louise Finch, Natasha Devon, Ryan La Sala, Angharad Walker and Chris Whitaker

“Ever since Mum, I’ve known the truth – everyone I know is walking around with a secret expiry date.” It’s been a year since Spence lost his mum in an accident, and the anniversary gets off to a bad start when his classmate Clara Hart hits his car in the school car park. Given her hostility and generally edgy attitude, he’s surprised to see her make an appearance at his best friend Anthony’s party that evening – and even more surprised to see her venture upstairs with him. The night ends in chaos, as Anthony’s parties often do, but this time it’s serious – Clara runs out into the road into the path of a speeding car, and dies.

The next morning, Spence wakes up to the same set of events – Clara hitting his car, Clara alive. Initially he chalks his memories up to a bad dream: “I don’t believe in mystical precognition or looping time. I believe in wrongly wired brains and emotional breakdowns, and both those options are looking plausible.” As the day continues to repeat, though, he starts looking for a solution – will saving Clara be enough to snap him out of this time loop?

Louise Finch’s debut novel, The Eternal Return of Clara Hart (Little Island, £8.99), deftly manages to revisit the same day over and over without it feeling repetitive, as Spence attempts to change the course of events and slowly realises that Anthony is not quite the “good friend” he’s believed him to be. This is a book about toxic masculinity, about sexual assault, about casual sexism, and about being complicit even when not the worst offender. All of that makes it sound like a terribly earnest read, but this novel is a reminder of how fiction can be an ideal space for exploring philosophical questions about guilt, morality, and what it means to live a “good” life. It has space for nuance and empathy in a way that a slogan or tweet does not.

Spence’s inability to ‘see’ the truth of events around him, and his capacity to justify the behaviour he and his friends engage in, is handled with care. When he realises that “it’s not right” how Anthony treats girls, he is not a white knight riding in to save the day nor is he a complete monster whose past behaviour makes him irredeemable. He is – like any of us – a complex and flawed human who does not always do the right thing. Finch’s capacity to evoke compassion for her protagonist even as he realises he is not the centre of the universe or the hero of the story is impressive, and in less skilled hands this story could have felt uncomfortably didactic. I’m glad for the author and for readers that it’s avoided that trap; I am glad this superb book exists.

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Mental health advocate and campaigner Natasha Devon has written non-fiction for teens previously, but Toxic (UCLan Publishing, £8.99) marks her first time addressing these issues in novel form. As with Clara Hart, this book benefits from the space fiction provides to explore complex topics without providing pat answers. Llewella’s toxic friendship with new girl Aretha is a painfully accurate depiction of coercive control – something we tend to associate with romantic relationships but is a pattern of behaviour that can make itself felt in many other situations.

The psychological damage that girls can do to each other is taken seriously here, and the ways in which mental health difficulties can disrupt the capacity to assess a relationship as unhealthy is handled particularly well. Llewella reflects: “it was becoming harder to separate my gut instinct from the irrational, paranoid stuff which was part and parcel of mental illness. Was it anxiety’s voice telling me Aretha was trying to muscle in on an opportunity I’d earned, or was it me? I honestly didn’t know.” This compelling story belongs on many bookshelves.

Intense friendships are woven into a supernatural thriller in Ryan La Sala’s The Honeys (Scholastic, £8.99), set in a prestigious summer camp in the Catskill Mountains, where wealthy and powerful parents send their children each year and where something sinister lurks beneath the picture-perfect scenery. At the heart of this camp are the Honeys, dubbed as such because of the apiary of beehives they tend to, who wield a “coy power as thick and ample as the honey they were named for”. Mars is convinced they had something to do with his sister’s death, and he returns to the camp determined to find out the truth.

Initially, the bee comparisons work well at depicting a certain kind of charisma, with the girls explicitly referred to as predators, “like a stinging insect cloaked in the satin bell of a flower”. But as the story progresses, it becomes clear that it is a little bit more complicated than that. “It’s a common misconception that the queen bee rules the hive,” one character reminds us. “Her power is in name only. In reality, if she’s not doing her job, the workers will kill her and simply create another.” This creepy page-turner about a human hive is not for the faint of heart.

Angharad Walker’s Once Upon A Fever (Chicken House, £7.99) brings us to an alternative London, where medicine and magic mix. In this world, ever since the Turn, illnesses have been caused by strong emotions and “methics” attempt to find cures for these terrible afflictions. Sisters Ani and Payton live in King Jude’s Hospital with their father, who seeks a cure for their mother’s water fever. While Ani befriends an imprisoned boy with a strange power, Payton comes under the influence of a charismatic methic who has designed a machine that “can see the diseased feelings that lurk in our blood. Bad feelings. Feelings that my team and I will one day eliminate from our society so we can have a safer, brighter future.”

If occasionally clunky in its exposition, it’s also an engaging read that holds a slanted mirror up to our own world, inviting us to think about emotions, health and ethics while taking us on an adventure. That slant is important: this is also a book to escape into.

Crime writer Chris Whitaker turns his focus to teens for the first time in The Forevers (Hot Key Books, £7.99), a pacy and twisty tale set in the countdown to the end of the world. Like everyone else on Earth, 17-year-old Mae has known for years that the comet was on its way. In this final summer, she tries to figure out what happened to her former best friend, Abi, whose death has been dismissed as one of a number of suicides (the teachers speak of this “like it was contagious, some kind of pollutant that smoked through impressionable minds, replacing hope with despair”). Mae, who found the body, believes it was murder.

Alongside this, and musings about “how humanity has survived this long”, she falls in love, and uncovers a number of secrets her classmates have been hiding. The large cast of characters is sometimes confusing, but the appealing premise and impending doom keeps you turning the pages until the very end.

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in reviewing young-adult literature