April’s young adult picks pack an emotional punch

A dead mother as a bird, a town of ghosts, addiction and friendship feature this month

Emily XR Pan: in her “The Astonishing Colour of After”, Leigh’s grief is compounded by her father’s refusal to believe something she knows to be true: her mother is now a bird.

Emily XR Pan: in her “The Astonishing Colour of After”, Leigh’s grief is compounded by her father’s refusal to believe something she knows to be true: her mother is now a bird.

 

Sixteen-year-old Leigh sees the world in colours, as vivid and varied as those in her paint box. Her mother’s death by suicide leaves her “colourless, translucent. I was a jellyfish caught up in a tide, forced to wherever the ocean willed.” Leigh’s grief is compounded by her father’s refusal to believe something she knows to be true: her mother is now a bird.

Emily XR Pan’s debut The Astonishing Colour of After (Orion Children’s Books, £7.99) draws on the East Asian tradition of the Ghost Festival – a time when the dead visit the living – as a backdrop for one girl’s experience of grief. Visiting her estranged grandparents in Taiwan, Leigh finds herself able to access memories of her family members by burning mementos, and tries to find in them the clues that will lead her to the red bird her mother has become.

The magical elements of this novel serve to make Leigh’s emotional journey all the more poignant, rather than detracting from it; the memories are also a clever device that facilitate the reveal of several family secrets. This is a beautiful, often lyrical account of remembering and mourning a loved one; a book that will stay with you.

‘Edge of ruin’

Ghosts are also present in TE Carter’s I Stop Somewhere (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), but although narrator Ellie claims her “whole town is full of ghosts”, she’s the only human variety. The others are the abandoned houses left behind when the town’s factories closed and the population dwindled; homes sometimes made vacant through evictions. In this “broken” town, the property developer who “saved the town from the edge of ruin” holds huge sway – as do his two teenage sons.

One of those boys was Ellie’s first love. Both of them were her rapists. And all three men were involved in secretly burying her body.

“Being a girl was all that landed me here. Having all the parts they wanted, but being nothing more than that.” To say this is a difficult read is an understatement. Raw truths about the cruelty of the world towards girls and women simmer on every page, and observations like “The system is set up to make you want to be quiet” when it comes to reporting rape will hit home for many readers.

In Keren David’s “Stranger”, Megan returns to a town just as a set of bones from decades ago have been unearthed.
In Keren David’s “Stranger”, Megan returns to a town just as a set of bones from decades ago have been unearthed.

Some hope is offered up as girls in the town come together to share their own experiences of assault and to support one another, and the beautiful writing goes a long way towards ensuring that although this is an upsetting read, it is rarely entirely grim.

Teenagers and counsellors

The writing, too, is what saves Juno Dawson’s Clean (Quercus, £7.99), a depiction of heroin addiction and recovery, from being “misery lit”, although in this case it’s the breeziness and sassiness of socialite Lexi, who also enjoys “a cheeky diazepam”. When she’s forced into rehab by her older brother after an overdose, she describes the exclusive centre as “like being at a hotel. A hotel with no booze.”

Despite wealth and privilege, Lexi isn’t happy – but the novel interrogates the “poor little rich girl” trope, with both the teenagers and their counsellors discussing the ways in which addiction operates, whether it’s drugs, food or even – gasp – sex. And trust Lexi, who’s just about starting to realise that her boyfriend is a creep, to fall for the one person who’s in there for that last issue . . .

Glamorous without glamorising addiction, and informative without getting preachy, this is a highly readable account of escaping from a self-destructive spiral, with an appealing love story woven in.

‘Fissures become trenches’

A new Gayle Forman novel is always a treat. I Have Lost My Way (Simon & Schuster, £7.99) invites us into the world of three very different teenagers when their lives collide – quite literally, involving a fall from a bridge in Central Park.

Each is weighed down by a secret, and as one of them reflects, “secrets carve fissures, until the fissures become trenches, and the trenches become channels, and the channels become crevasses, and suddenly you are alone, on a block of ice, separated from everyone you care about”.

The joy – and relief – of finding people to connect to, to trust, is powerfully evoked as the friendship between the trio develops and the history of their “getting lost” emerges. Emotional but never schmaltzy, this is a skilfully crafted ode to “finding your tribe”.

In the early 20th century, a wild boy stumbles out of a Canadian forest, covered in blood and unable to remember his own name. “It was widely believed that he had lived for months, possibly years in the forest, either with wolves or Indians; that he fought bears and ate insects – a Savage Pagan!” Sixteen-year-old Emmy befriends him, later to fall in love with him – but the town remains suspicious of this outsider.

Human connection

Ninety years later, her great-granddaughter, Megan, returns to the town just as a set of bones from decades ago have been unearthed. Keren David’s Stranger (Atom, £7.99) deftly moves between both timelines, offering up two distinct voices and perspectives while at the same time presenting parallels in these young women’s lives and choices. Both find themselves pregnant as teenagers; the decisions they make are not ones they regret but do leave them with a secret to carry.

As in Forman’s novel, secrets isolate them from those they love, and sharing the truth with someone you trust provides the path back to real human connection. The truth that unfolds across the two narratives is complicated and compelling, adding a deeply satisfying mystery element to this exploration of family and love. With the exception of a heavy-handed closing line, there’s not a false note here.

Claire Hennessy is a writer and YA commentator

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