YA Fiction: Siblings and Survival Feature In April’s Picks
Plus new works from John Boyne, Sara Mara Griffin and C.G. Drews
Griffin has an ear to rival Roddy Doyle and Paul Howard for capturing the cadences of Dublin speech on the page.
Our planet is dying; humanity is doomed. So begins Irish author Charlie Pike’s first novel, Jacob’s Ladder (O’Brien, € 14.99), an immediately-believable 23rd-century dystopia. Decades ago, when people finally admitted their own cleverness could not save them, they flung a distress call into space. An alien civilisation responded: salvation is coming, for a select few. “Prepare to be born anew.”
For Initiate Leon, raised within the Colony, salvation will come through tracking and killing a human sacrifice. Completely immersed in the ways of his community, his response on discovering his Bind is a young woman is not horror but disappointment and shame; “I was sure they would honour me with a man . . . someone whose strength and ferocity would reflect well on me. There’s no glory in this Bind. When I find her and kill her no one is going to cheer.”
Unsettling though Leon’s perspective is, it is also convincing and serves to reinforce the brutality of this future world. Out in the wild, his Bind escapes and Leon instead forms a bond with a former servant as they find themselves shifting between hunters and the hunted.
The action zips along, introducing us to several unexpected elements, including a delightfully creepy quasi-zombie worm infestation. A notable debut from a writer we are sure to hear more from.
Having offered readers her own take on a dystopian world in her first YA novel, Sarah Maria Griffin returns to contemporary Dublin (home of much of her non-fiction) for her second, Other Words For Smoke (Titan Books, £8.99/ €10.43). There was once a house “in the hinterlands where the suburbs kissed the mountains”, a house where monsters lurked within the wallpaper and emerged to feed from the humans who dwelled there. This is the story of the two summers twins Mae and Rossa spent there.
“A summer,” we learn, “is a bright wound that splits the year open like a hinge and leaves you exposed for who you really are . . . an agreement whereby something happens between people.” These summers are ones that shape these two teenagers, as they are pulled into the world of two witches - their great-aunt Rita, half-shunned by the locals due to her work as a psychic, and the beautiful Bevan, who captures the heart of one twin and then the other.
There is a great deal going on in this dreamy tale of hauntings and yearnings, though much of it is lurking underneath the surface. It may take a while to get into, but its sense of atmosphere is particularly worth it. It’s also terribly pleasing to see Griffin capturing the cadences of Dublin speech on the page; she has an ear to rival Roddy Doyle and Paul Howard in this regard, and it grounds the otherworldly elements beautifully.
Although some of the stylistic quirks - such as footnotes throughout - don’t entirely earn their inclusion, this is still an impressive and lyrical novel that deftly uses horror to tell a coming-of-age story.
Siblings also appear in John Boyne’s My Brother’s Name Is Jessica (Puffin, £11.99/€13.41 ), with thirteen-year-old Sam confused when his older brother and idol Jason reveals, “I think I’m actually your sister.” Sam is resistant to this not just because it seems to rewrite their entire history but also because he is on the verge of puberty, and worries: “what if it happens to me?”
It takes until the end of the book for Sam’s family to accept the new identity of “Jessica”, and it’s a slightly sudden change-of-heart that feels closer to fable (the mode of most of Boyne’s work for younger readers) than the lightly-satirical contemporary style of this book (echoing the younger Cyril Avery in his The Heart’s Invisible Furies).
Elsewhere in the novel, though, clichés are avoided, with the football coach not caring how his star player dresses (“It’s got nothing to do with me. But football! . . . That’s something really important!”) and an interest in this allegedly “masculine” pursuit being entirely beside the point when it comes to gender identity.
Much humour also comes from the parents, who are in politics- Sam’s dad, assistant to his Cabinet Minister wife, drinks pints of real ale, “which he didn’t like very much but thought made him look like a man of the people in photographs”; Sam’s mum dithers over where to go on holiday as she has to be “seen to be completely supportive of Europe while, at the same time, opposing everything that it stands for.” (This reviewer hopes it will still be possible to laugh at these parts of the book by the time this column appears online and in print.)
Australian writer C. G. Drews’s The Boy Who Steals Houses (Orchard, £7.99/ €9.27) also has a Sam as protagonist - this one spends his time picking locks and sleeping in other people’s homes. Having fled an abusive home with his autistic brother, whose screaming fits are less “cute” and more threatening now that he is seventeen, his focus is to keep them both safe. “It shouldn’t be Sam’s job. He’s only fifteen. Except it always is his job.”
Stepping into the world of the chaotic but loving De Lainey family, befriending the three siblings close to his age, offers Sam a brief respite, and he can’t resist the urge to return - at which point all hell breaks loose.
What could have been a twee story about a lovable stray being unofficially adopted by do-gooders ends up being a much more complicated and sophisticated account of a boy who has been hurt and has hurt others. If this moving novel doesn’t leave you in floods of tears you may not have a heart.
Claire Hennessy is a writer and YA commentator.