YA Fiction: Haunting dystopias and a return to boarding school
New young adult releases cover a range of topics from death to sexual confusion
Nina de Pass: The narrator of The Year After You is haunted by her best friend’s death
The death of YA, à la Mark Twain, has been greatly exaggerated. A recent and much-publicised slump in UK sales ignores the extent to which such sales were already typically dismissed (critically and commercially), as well as the impact of franchise-led American titles (all genres see a boost when movie adaptations arrive on to our screens). Despite the handwringing, though, young adult fiction continues to represent a significant proportion of the market, along with its oft-neglected sibling, children’s fiction.
It is ludicrous to suggest that YA is some new-fangled genre destined to fade into obscurity; the label’s existence from the 1950s onwards reminds us that these are books we are likely to know and love. What this means, however, beyond Salinger, is still very much up for grabs. Do we yearn for Holden Caulfield-esque musings on the phoniness of adults or for Stephenie Meyer-inspired sexytimes? Are we looking for stories that speak to us – whether teen or adult – and offer up some truth about living in the world as we know it?
What’s on offer this month is a mix of all of the above, reflecting the range in this field. Orlagh Collins’s All The Invisible Things (Bloomsbury, £7.99), the second YA title from this Irish-born writer, invites us into a world where 16-year-old Helvetica (Vetty) returns to her childhood home and explores – in more detail than the cute cover suggests – her relationship with her former best friend and his new girlfriend. This seemingly fluffy summer romance offers sharp insights into porn addiction and sexual confusion, leaving readers with much to consider as well as a compelling storyline.
Nina de Pass’s The Year After You (Ink Road, £7.99) is a debut that delves into what it means to be the one who lives through something terrible. “For a split second I feel euphoric. Maybe I won’t survive this time.” This atmospheric novel, set in a Swiss boarding school (I know! Be still my heart!) depicts a burgeoning relationship between the narrator, haunted by her best friend’s death, and the resident troubled young man; it goes beyond a romance tale by also delving into the other friendships they experience and the complicated family dynamics each of them is dealing with. While these characters suffer, they never whine; this is a delicious read that will make readers eager to see what Nina de Pass does next.
Samira Ahmed’s Internment (Atom, £7.99) is a haunting dystopian read set, as the author puts it, “15 minutes into the future”. Depicting a world where an extremist president has come to power in the US (imagine!), it focuses on a teenage girl and her imprisonment in a camp for Muslims, presented as something necessary for the common good. “These days, actual guilt is an afterthought,” 17-year-old Layla muses, a detail that feels all too real.
The idea that “it can’t happen here” is slowly torn apart; of course it can happen here. Indeed it does, an idea explored in sophisticated ways in Ahmed’s third novel, where the frustration between what is expected as an American citizen versus what is offered up to a perceived “threat” is ultimately combustible. Despite occasional preachy moments (while the message that “courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s doing the right thing in spite of it” is a valid one, to have it stated directly by one of the teen characters rings slightly hollow), it’s a powerful, thought-provoking book.
Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism fame offers up The Burning (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), a topical but pleasingly un-didactic fiction debut focusing on a teenage girl who finds her social ostracism reflected in a centuries-old case study of a convicted witch. The parallels between medieval witchhunts and modern slut shaming are subtly drawn, even though the narrator – like many YA protagonists – seems to have the good fortune of having incredibly thematically appropriate homework. An ear for authentic adolescent dialogue and a sharp eye on the ways in which both girls and boys make presumptions about, and judge, one another makes this a must-read for 2019.
British author, and recently shortlisted for the YA Book Prize, Sara Barnard revisits characters from her first novel (Beautiful Broken Things) in Fierce Fragile Hearts (Macmillan, £7.99), this time giving a voice to the troubled Suzanne as she arrives into adulthood. “When someone knows you’ve been broken, all they see is the cracks,” she reflects, now 18 and living alone, allegedly independent but still haunted by a childhood of abuse and an ongoing sense that she is “easier from a distance”.
This is a quiet heartbreaker of a text, in which the narrator articulates the all-too-real sense of being “difficult” to deal with, even for her closest friends; there is an extraordinary moment in which one of these pals confronts her about her unconsciously manipulative tendencies while at the same time being sympathetic to the trauma she’s gone through. I can’t think of another writer who depicts the complexities and passions of female friendship as authentically as Barnard does; this is an absolute gem.
Following the success of previous anthologies, Stripe Books gives us Proud (£7.99), a collection of LGBTQ+ themed work edited by author and activist Juno Dawson. Each story or poem is accompanied by a piece of art, making this a real treat; both fantasy and contemporary worlds are represented in this diverse collection. The pieces mostly forgo earnestness in favour of humour and relatability; my personal favourites are a tale in verse about a queer choir from American author David Levithan and the gently-magic-infused account of teenagers during the Irish marriage equality referendum from Moira Fowley-Doyle (illustrated by Fatti Burke). Empathetic and accessible, this belongs in every school library.
Claire Hennessy is a writer and YA commentator