Young adult reviews: Girl power and living life to the full
Suffragettes, cosmic romance and a message from Death feature in these titles
Sally Nicholls: Her novel ‘Things A Bright Girl Can Do’ is timely, informative and hugely enjoyable
Next year will mark the centenary of (some) women in Britain and Ireland getting the vote, so Sally Nicholls’s new novel, Things A Bright Girl Can Do (Andersen Press, £12.99) is timely, informative and hugely enjoyable. It depicts three young women who get involved in the suffragette movement for different reasons. Middle-class Evelyn longs to attend university, although she is “aware of the two ideologies sitting alongside each other in her head; the nice young girl from Hampstead who wanted to be respected, and the rebel woman who wanted to bring down the pillars of the world”.
May’s background is much more liberal; she hails from a home “full of books, and music, and incendiary ideas”. Her mother – “a vegetarian, a suffragist, a pacifist, a Quaker, a Fabian, a Bolshevik sympathiser and a believer in Rational Dress for women” – encourages her to join the movement, and is ahead of her time in accepting May’s love for working-class Nell. Nell dresses as a boy, wondering: “How did girls cope, squeezed into petticoats and pinafores and bodices and corsets and combinations and stockings and suspenders and spencers and all the rest of it, all day, every day?” As one of the elder children in a large family, she is all too aware of the injustice of being paid less than men for the same work, and sometimes frustrated at May’s prioritising of ideals over pragmatism.
The novel excels at showing the range of opinions and backgrounds of those involved in the fight for women’s suffrage, as well as the surge of patriotism that overcomes the country – and drowns out all interest in women’s issues – when Britain goes to war. Its three heroines are real, and flawed – their important cause does not necessarily sustain them when heartache hits, or when the struggles of everyday life exhaust them. While there are plenty of historical details to note, the book excels at what fiction is best at: inviting empathy and understanding for others.
From the past to the future: Lauren James’s The Loneliest Girl In The Universe (Walker Books, £7.99) takes place 50 years from now, on a spaceship originally designed to send astronauts in stasis to colonise a new planet. Two horrific accidents early in the journey have left 16-year-old Romy as the ship’s commander, with only time-delayed messages from Earth to remind her that she’s not the only human in existence. “Right now,” she reflects, “I’m officially further away from any other human being than anyone else has been since the evolution of the species.”
Prone to anxiety, she distracts herself by watching and writing fanfiction about a TV show featuring a detective duo – “Jayden Ness, the puppy-eyed and long-legged mixed-race selkie, and Lyra Loch, the no-nonsense feminist banshee” – that readers may wish really existed. Life changes when she learns of another ship sent from Earth, one travelling fast enough to catch up with her in a year’s time. The messages from the commander, J, see her falling in love with him from afar, even as it becomes clear there’s something sinister happening back home.
James captures both an adolescent voice and mentality accurately, but the plotting and pacing is really where she excels. By the final third of the book it is impossible to stop turning the pages, desperate to know what happens next.
Sig Sigmarsdottir is already a bestseller in her native Iceland; I Am Traitor (Hodder Children’s Books, £7.99) marks her English-language debut. Amy (14) worries she “actually might die without ever being kissed” – an everyday concern that has become more urgent since the siege of Earth began. These alien “visitors” are seizing teenagers, and everyone is scared – but Amy, who has spent so much time avoiding scary situations, now understands: “we only get this one life. Just the one. It was up to me to do something with it. In the face of death I got a wake-up call. I didn’t want to spend my life hiding away.”
This newfound sense of living life to its fullest soon evaporates when Amy’s attempt to be brave goes awry and she finds herself in the “camp”, unsure what the right thing to do is. At times her journal entries – offering us flashes slightly further on in the story – serve to distract rather than enhance tension, but there is much to keep a reader engaged, while also raising questions about morality and courage with a reasonably light touch.
Adam Silvera’s third novel, They Both Die At The End (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), posits a world where deaths can be accurately predicted. An employee from “Death-Cast” will be in touch on the day that you die, offering up the standard condolence: “On behalf of Death-Cast, we are sorry to lose you. Live this day to the fullest.”
Mateo is another teenager who has lived fearfully, and after getting the call realises: “I’ve spent years living safely to secure a longer life, and look where that’s gotten me. I’m at the finish line, but I never ran the race.” On this last day, a newfound friendship with Rufus, also about to die, pushes him outside of his comfort zone, while we also see snippets of the lives of those who interact, even if briefly, with the pair.
Silvera has an ear for authentic dialogue and a clever eye for the aspects of technology and society that might adapt to this new phenomenon. Apps and amusement parks catering to the “Deckers” – those fated to die – spring up, and online trolling and terrible reality TV inevitably make an appearance. This is a thought-provoking and heart-warming manifesto, urging readers to live bravely.
Claire Hennessy is a writer, editor and creative writing facilitator