This week, I've been dipping my toe in the Young Adult pool with three novels exploring the angst-ridden topics of not only loss, grief, and isolation, but also the strong bonds of friendship and loyalty that see us through the dark times. These are quite common themes in YA lit at the moment, mainly due the phenomenal success of The Fault In Our Stars, but the three novels I was sent to review manage to separate themselves from the crowd through strong characterisation, a gruesome period of history, and heart-breaking realism.
The Dark Inside. Rupert Wallis
James is a desperately lonely thirteen year old, who's mourning his Mum after her death in a car accident, while at the same time avoiding his violent Step-Dad who makes it clear he wants little to do with him now his Mum has gone. One way he escapes is by hiding out in an abandoned house, and it's here he discovers Webster, beaten, exhausted and on the run. It transpires that Webster is a former soldier on the run from travellers who've had him caged up and on display as one of the attractions at their fair on account of his 'curse', and they intend to get him back at whatever cost. Following a stand-off between Webster and James' step-dad, they set out together to find a cure and what follows is a rich, multi-layered portrayal of two damaged people and their attempts to fix themselves and each other.
It's this characterisation that really drives The Dark Inside's narrative, with any supernatural element taking second place to the main protagonist's story. At times, this screams 'debut novel': actions repeated by different characters, and too much detail given to menial tasks while back-story is dismissed in a sentence are two of the problems present here, that hopefully will be ironed out in future novels, as Wallis has a definite ability with relationships.
The Blood List. Sarah Naughton
In The Blood List we're transported to 17th century England and a story soaked in fear, mistrust and loyalty, as we follow young Barnaby's transition from boy to man and the responsibilities that come with it. We start the novel with his mother Frances: young, naive and defiant, but ultimately defeated as her beloved Barnaby is believed to be a 'changeling'-swapped by the Fairies-purely because he doesn't act 'right'. Overruled by her husband's family and their nanny, the child is taken to the forest and left for the fairies for them to swap back for the 'real' baby and when the mystical area is checked a far different child is in it's place. From here on in, Frances fights against bonding with this child she knows deep down isn't hers and as we jump forward to the present, it's obvious that the relationship that Barnaby has with his mother is driven by this belief and damaged beyond repair. Soon, we learn that Frances had another child, the creepy, weasley Abel and that is where Frances affections are focused, building up to the archetypal sibling rivalry with Abel being equally jealous of Barnaby's bond with his father and the attention that garners.
Superstition is still rife in the village with both elderly women and young girls accused of witchcraft, and Barnaby's family come under scrutiny when they hire local girl Naomi as a housemaid. Barnaby is besotted with the wild-haired Naomi since she saved his life, but her cold demeanor means he can never quite get through to her, often finding he's caused offence rather than impressed her. Unfortunately, for me, this relationship didn't quite gel for me and I much prefered Barnaby's moments with the softer, loyal Juliet, who he obviously felt a great affection for, as she did for him. Because of this, it makes later events far harder to believe, but Barnaby's actions take second place to the vivid and gruesome events of the novels second half.
The deeply religious and righteous Abel, having been sent away to join the priesthood before he causes any more trouble, returns to reek havok and take his revenge on not only his brother, but on the village that mocked him. Trouble is, he brings a new acquaintance in the form of a young Matthew Hopkins, the man who would later find fame as the infamous 'Witch Finder General'. After an extremely descriptive 'dunking', suspicion soon falls on both Naomi and Barnaby as Abel's plans come to full effect.
This really is a book of two halves, and the second is the most preferable. Very little happens in the first half bar a few scene-setting plots, but as this is an extremely quick read, it's not a big deal. Naughton's strength is quite clearly in research and her ability to put that on the page, but I wish the same level of detail was used in regard the relationships, especially between the brothers, and the big jump from baby to young man is part of the problem. We're supposed to believe this intense hatred between them, but are only given a year to experience it.
The Year Of The Rat. Claire Furniss
Sometimes, you come across a novel that just 'gets' you in all the right places, and The Year Of The Rat is one such book.
Pearl is fifteen, busy doing all the things fifteen year olds are good at-friends, love, school, getting sassy with her mum- but that all falls apart when her mum Stella dies, at seven months pregnant, leaving her, her step-dad and the new baby Rose. But Pearl can't cope with Rose, knowing that her very existence is why her mum is dead, so refers to her only as 'The Rat', refusing to even visit her in the hospital.
The novel covers a year in Pearl's life since the event and touches every base possible: resentment, unbearable grief, denial, and isolation as Pearl struggles to keep living her life as she feels everyone expects her too. But what debut novelist (and it is seriously hard to believe this is her first) Claire Furniss has achieved here is remarkable, with a level of realism in her characters that I've not seen since early Jacqueline Wilson. These are real people-no cliches, no stunt 'issues' to pad them out (at one point Pearl's gauntness is presumed to be an eating disorder, but she rebukes that straight off-it's grief) just honest depictions of the rubbish that hits us every day. Stella appears to Pearl after she's died, not as an ethereal spirit talking like a motivational poster, but as Stella, complete with her her cigarettes and lighter, often when Pearl least expects it. How Furniss handles this evokes the fabulous Truly Madly Deeply with an especially funny sequence while Pearl is trying to take a shower. You can see Pearl's heart break with every appearance but as time goes on you see her start to question her mum's actions, particularly as to why she had to have another baby and 'ruin it all'.
As Pearl unravels more and more and her isolation increases, you genuinely worry for her, whether she'll pull through unscathed, but you never question her actions or judge her because she is written so well. This will be one of those YA novels that becomes a hit across the generations as adults and teens alike will be reading this and going "Yep, she's got that right" through most of it.
You'll be hard pushed to find a book that deals with the grief process and how hard it is to really 'let go' as The Year Of The Rat, but word of warning, you will need tissues, no matter how hardcore you think you are. This is already in my top ten books of 2014.
All novels were received as digital review copies via NetGalley and publishers Simon and Schuster, in return for an open and honest review and I thank them for the opportunity.