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Survival stories that will leave lasting impressions: the latest YA titles

You Don’t Know What War Is; As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow; Babel; We Are All Constellations; Activist; The First to Die at the End

“The fewer people who know what war is, the better. The world would be a happier place because there’s nothing worse than war,” 12-year-old Yeva Skalietska writes earnestly at the end of her powerful account of fleeing from Ukraine to Dublin earlier this year. Growing up in Kharkiv with her grandmother, she has a happy childhood: “Up until the early hours of 24 February 2022, my life is peaceful.” Then she wakes to explosions, and everything changes.

You Don’t Know What War Is (Bloomsbury, £9.99) is based on Skalietska’s diary from those early days of the war, and although one imagines some tidying up has been done, it is strikingly child-like (as distinct from childish) in its outlook. She moves from describing the destruction of her neighbourhood to wryness about her school closing for a “holiday”, from the specifics of the cellar she shelters in to the ways in which her outlook on life has completely shifted. “We want peace. We can’t remember our old dreams anymore, or all the things we thought were important. We can’t recall our old arguments or troubles. All of those past concerns just don’t matter. When there’s a war going on, you’ve only got one goal – staying alive.”

These may be familiar sentiments, but they take on a particular resonance when coming from someone discovering them afresh. War is hell – that the phrase is a cliche does not make it any less true. This is one of those extraordinary books that will haunt readers for a very long time.

The horrors of war are filtered through magical realism in Zoulfa Katouh’s debut, As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow (Bloomsbury, £12.99), set during the Syrian revolution. The uprising means that 18-year-old Salama is no longer a pharmacy student but working in an under-resourced hospital. “I wasn’t made to cut into bodies, stitch wounds and amputate limbs, but I made myself become that person.” The losses she has witnessed coalesce into the figure of Khawf, who she knows is a hallucination and yet can’t help but listen to, particularly when he urges her to escape.


Fleeing is a costly business, and she has her pregnant sister-in-law to think of; the situation is made even more complicated when she meets Kenan, who films the atrocities for the rest of the world to see and is determined to stay. Katouh’s evocative writing makes their romance believable, and while there are occasional heavy-handed moments about how there is still beauty in the world (“Look how even the agony hasn’t stripped their innocence,” Kenan says as he points to children playing, a line one could perhaps get away with in narration but somewhat painful in dialogue), sentimentality is mostly avoided. This is a compelling read.

RF Kuang’s Babel (HarperVoyager, £16.99) is a dark fantasy set in an alternate Victorian Britain, in which magical silver is the source of the empire’s power and translation is a valuable skill. Shortly after the novel begins, the Royal Institute of Translation in Oxford welcomes a new cohort of students, including the Chinese-born Robin, who finds here “a circle of people he loved so fiercely his chest hurt when he thought about them. A family.”

His skin and features mark him out as different, but even so, he is charmed by the place: “For all the daily slights he suffered, walking through campus delighted him.” His encounters with a secret society open his eyes somewhat, but he is believably slow to completely agree with their stance that “the wealth of Britain depends on coercive extraction” and that rebellion against the empire is the morally right thing to do. “Was it so wrong to want to survive?” he asks himself.

Kuang comes from an academic background, with a language-related PhD from Yale, and at times the novel – complete with footnotes – veers towards thesis territory. There is more “telling” than “showing” when it comes to the violence of colonialism, though perhaps Irish readers are less likely to need persuading that the British empire might have done a bit of damage. The ideas, rather than the characters, are what will stay with the reader after the final page.

“I thought I was silver linings and bright sides but, turns out, what I am is stupidity and betrayal.” Amy Beashel’s second novel, We Are All Constellations (Rock the Boat, £8.99), echoes the emotional authenticity of her first. A passion for urban exploration leads 17-year-old Iris to discover the truth about her mum’s death, and the shockwaves ripple out across her entire life. She wonders if, like her mother, she too is “a lot”; she fears she is turning into someone who others can’t bear to be around. This is a book about mental illness without being anything as reductive as an “issue book”; it is both insightful and compulsively readable.

“We could all be the girl who cries herself to sleep / because no one believes her when she says she hurts.” Louisa Reid’s latest verse novel, Activist (Guppy Books, £7.99), features the aptly-named Cassandra, who speaks out against the toxic misogyny within her prestigious school. Already resented by her former friend Henry for rebuffing his advances, she becomes a target for the boys who think the girls are making too much of a fuss – and for the teaching staff who imagine that the problem can be resolved with a simple assembly.

Reid also addresses environmental issues, with Cassie and her friends involved in a doomed campaign to save their local woods from developers, and strikes a careful balance between optimism and realism in her depiction of the toll activism takes on the individual. There is disillusionment and frustration alongside the desire to improve the world, and an awareness that speaking up is often punished. Yet even if silence is more tempting, Reid reminds us, it is dangerous in its own way; “silence is / a sea of drowning / girls.” An angry, yet hopeful, call-to-arms.

What would you do if you knew that today was the last day of your life? This is the question posed by Adam Silvera in his latest novel, The First to Die at the End (Simon & Schuster, £12.99), a prequel to his bestselling and TikTok-famous They Both Die at the End, which covered similar territory. In this universe, a company known as Death-Cast can predict whenever someone will die, and calls them to let them know, with a view to encouraging them to spend their final day living life to the fullest. Here we see the beginnings of Death-Cast, with 19-year-old Valentino receiving the very first phone call alerting him to his impending demise. It is also the day that he – like the protagonists of the original novel – meets the boy of his dreams.

There is a certain charm to this book but a great deal of it feels familiar, a rehashing of topics and themes Silvera has explored in his other works. Publishers have a tendency to try to replicate previous successes; these commercial decisions are often at odds with artistic quality. It is always disheartening to be reminded, by books that could – should – have been better, that publishing is a business.

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy

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