Four novels for young adults
Science fiction, tensions in Belfast, family dynamics and the ‘rules’ of revenge
Jason Reynolds: his aim is to “not write boring books”, particularly for teenage boys, and there is absolutely no fear of that here
“After the inquest someone suggested that I see a psychiatrist. I couldn’t face looking at another person who believed that I was telling fairy stories. You’re not like that, Mr Jones. You listen.”
The mysterious Mr Jones interviews four characters throughout the course of My Side of the Diamond (Hot Key Books, £9.99), the latest young adult novel from multi-award-winning Sally Gardner. Quickly we learn why: a bright and brilliant teenage girl jumped off a building. Who’s to blame? And what does it have to do with the mysterious Lazarus and Skye, also jumpers, whose bodies were never found?
Although the premise seems closer to murder-mystery than anything else, there are hints from early on that there’s something otherworldly at play here, and the novel slides confidently into science fiction territory that offers up – as the best science fiction does – reflections on what it means to be human and to love. The idea that love is the best thing humanity has to offer is a slight cliché, but is carried off convincingly here.
On a structural level the multiple narrators offer up the chance for the reader to slot various puzzle pieces together as the connections between the different characters become clear. It’s an incredibly satisfying read that, at just over 200 pages, also reminds us that the level of complexity in fiction is rarely proportional to its length.
The second novel from Northern Irish author Shirley-Anne McMillan, The Unknowns (Atom, £7.99), brings us to Belfast, a city almost exclusively associated with Joan Lingard’s “Kevin and Sadie” books as far as literature for young people is concerned. For narrator Tilly, the Troubles are very much in the past – it’s her grandmother who has explained the era to her, and the idea that a new cute boy might be “in the Ra” is handled casually, jokily – but the city is still not necessarily safe or inclusive.
“No murders anymore. Now we murder ourselves,” Tilly reflects, citing school suicide prevention programmes that don’t really seem to help. This is a Belfast not dominated by sectarian violence but there are still tensions and a hostility towards anyone “different”; this is a city part of the UK and as such prone to post-Brexit acts of racism towards immigrants. When she befriends an anarchist group, made up of “the kind of people you never saw on local telly”, it offers her both a sense of belonging and a feeling of empowerment.
The idealism and optimism presented here is carefully balanced out with gritty realism and a sense of humour; like many YA novels this book features a smart and insightful love interest who helps the heroine change how she sees the world, but in this case he also wears eyeliner, identifies as bisexual and has the self-awareness to occasionally ask, in the middle of his philosophical musings, “Do I sound like a d**k?” This is a thought-provoking and hopeful read from a writer to watch.
Benjamin Alire Saenz’s last YA novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, earned a plethora of awards and honours; The Inexplicable Logic of my Life (Simon & Schuster, £7.99) is just as smart, honest and readable.
Salvador is in his final year of high school when it starts: the rage. “It all happened in an instant, like a flash of lightning, only the lightning wasn’t coming from the sky, it was coming from somewhere inside of me. Seeing all that blood gush out of another guy’s nose made me feel alive. It did. That’s the truth. And that scared me.”
His best friend Sam tries to understand, but she has her own issues with a mother that frequently neglects her, and even though he loves his dad, he doesn’t want to talk about this – especially with a dying grandmother in the picture. Salvador can’t help wondering if this is his biological father’s genes coming to the fore, and what kind of man he’ll turn out to be.
Thoughtful and kind without being precocious, Salvador is an immensely relatable protagonist and the focus on family dynamics – both the families we’re born into and those we create for ourselves – rather than romance is very welcome. Saenz’s background as a poet is evident in the attention paid to words, meaning and truth.
Poetry is also on display in Jason Reynolds’s verse novel Long Way Down (Faber & Faber, £11.99), superbly illustrated by Chris Priestley, which also places family at its centre. Will’s brother Shawn has just been shot: “if the blood/inside you is on the inside/of someone else,/you never want to/see it on the outside of/them.”
Will knows the “rules”, passed on through the generations. You don’t cry. You don’t tell tales. But you do get revenge. So, gun tucked into his jeans, he gets on the elevator to seek out Shawn’s killer only to encounter the ghosts of all those he knows who have been the victims of gun violence.
It’s an alarming insight into a world where this is normal, where people are “trained” to keep silent and “become invisible”. And despite the intellectual understanding readers may have of how something like the “rules” perpetrate a vicious cycle, it is difficult not to empathise with those who live within a cruel system. As Will puts it, the rules “weren’t meant to be broken./They were meant for the broken/to follow.”
It’s a powerful novel skilfully and energetically told. Reynolds’s aim is to “not write boring books”, particularly for teenage boys – absolutely no fear of that here. Expect this to be much-discussed in 2018.
Claire Hennessy is a writer, editor and creative writing facilitator.