YA fiction reviews: From a nuanced look at love to a powerful adoption story
YA work from Sara Barnard, Robin Benway, Mary Watson , Peter Bognanni and MT Anderson
Clever and studious Bonnie is “the best, most steady, most reliable friend in the world” to narrator and “bad girl” Eden, so when she runs away with her mysterious boyfriend Jack – who proves not to be imaginary but in fact a music teacher at their school – it is beyond surprising. While the police quiz Eden about where Bonnie might be, she insists she doesn’t know – a lie inspired by loyalty that grows harder to tell as her sense of betrayal increases.
Sara Barnard’s third novel, Goodbye Perfect (Macmillan, £7.99), has high potential to be simply an “issue” book, but she avoids being too didactic about what Bonnie and Eden view as “true love” and the media insists is a case of grooming. What we have instead is a nuanced portrayal of how the crisis iaffects Eden, who - adopted, rather than born, into middle-class privilege - appreciates the “security and safety of family” and grows to resent Bonnie for choosing to throw away things Eden has lost. As with Barnard’s other work, the yearning teenage voice is sometimes painfully authentic, and the avoidance of easy solutions adds to the tremendous sense of realism. A superb contemporary drama.
The questions Eden considers about “blood versus choice” are also explored in Robin Benway’s Far From The Tree (Simon & Schuster, £7.99). Already the winner of a National Book Award when published in the United States last year, it tackles adoption and the quest for personal roots – not unusual topics for YA – but configured in an intriguing way here. Three birth siblings, each raised in different environments, learn about each other after middle child Grace decides she “needed to be tethered to someone again” and to seek out her biological mother. The reason – that she has just given up her own daughter for adoption – is something she keeps from her newfound siblings, Maya and Joaquin, but all three are guarding secrets and hurts.
Benway moves deftly between the characters, allowing us to see the anxieties each of them has about this newfound family set-up, as well as the more mundane ways in which they irritate and frustrate one another. The vibrant dialogue lends the story a lightness that ensures the emotional confrontations and discoveries towards the end feel plausible – and properly deserving of barely-gulped-back tears – rather than overly sentimental. These characters will stay with you.
There may be an ancient battle between magical sects going on but the bad guys are also busy controlling county councils and shopping at Brown Thomas
“Most people in the village didn’t realise we were different. There was a lazy, half-awareness of something a little other. Like it was in the wind or the soil or the water, that sense of a different kind of normal, living alongside them.” The dreamy prose of Mary Watson’s mythology-infused YA debut, The Wren Hunt (Bloomsbury, £7.99), contrasts with the more prosaic dialogue – “I wouldn’t mind a liaison with a tree man. As long as he’s ripped.” – but both serve to make the magic seem just about plausible. There are no wands here, just imperfect attempts to read the signs in nature and to decipher patterns as best one can; there may be an ancient battle between different magical sects going on but the “bad guys” are also busy controlling county councils and shopping at Brown Thomas. The novel is at its best with these small details. When it delves into the realm of prophecy, chosen ones and magical parentage, certain plot points will be more than a little predictable for fantasy fans. Protagonist Wren is endearing, though, and her struggles with a power that threatens her own sanity are a compelling thread throughout the narrative.
Peter Bognanni steps into YA with Things I’m Seeing Without You (Chicken House, £7.99), which opens with the Holden-Caulfield-esque reveal that our narrator has just run away from boarding school and is pondering life’s big questions, in this case “the slow death of the universe”. Tess’s interest in death, prompted by the loss of a boy she mostly only knew online, leads her to her semi-estranged father, a funeral planner, and the occasional too-apt quote from an adult: “I think one of the reasons we’re so scared of death in this country is because as soon as someone dies, the body is taken away and pumped full of chemicals. There’s no direct contact with the dead any more.”
There is a certain kind of slick American literary YA novel that features the kind of (sometimes only ostensibly) thought-provoking quotes that seem implausible in dialogue and this is definitely among them; Tess herself later delivers a speech about how she wants to “try to pay attention to the sublime”. Thematically everything is just slightly too neat, but structurally it still satisfies - a kind of reader manipulation that you might be intellectually aware of but emotionally susceptible to all the same.
Finally, MT Anderson of Feed and Octavian Nothing fame tackles the aftermath of an alien invasion in Landscape With Invisible Hand (Walker Books, £6.99). More social satire than hard science fiction, it depicts the struggle aspiring teenage artist Adam, whose only source of income – recording faux-1950s “date” videos with his girlfriend for their “vuvv” subscribers – has just come under threat. Entering an art competition could earn him enough for necessary medical treatment but the “vuvv” have a very particular sense of what makes good art.
The zaniness of this world allows for the commentary on performing for cameras (“We were always aware that our love had an audience”), the millennial-style struggles for employment (“We just have to stay positive and keep networking”), and the patronising nature of the colonisers towards the “cute” humans to slip in naturally; the end result is a quirky, engaging story that nonetheless unsettles deeply.
Claire Hennessy is a writer and YA commentator