Fantasy Review Barn
Recently I went to my local independent bookstore to buy a book to send to a just-twelve-year-old. What would you recommend, I asked the lady in charge. How about ‘The Hunger Games’, she said. Erm, children fighting each other to the death? I don’t think so. But this was on the same shelf, it has a great cover and it sounded vaguely romancey. When I got it home, I found I already had it on my Kindle (don’t remember buying it, let alone why). So I started reading. Well. Suicide, self-harm, teenage pregnancy, promiscuity and lots and lots of alcohol. What are they selling to children these days?
It starts well. Seventeen-year-old Grace wakes up in a completely white room, held captive by a strange man, Ethan. There are pens and paper in the room, so she starts writing, both about her captivity and the last few months before it. The story alternates between present and past, and there’s an embedded mystery in each: why Grace is a prisoner, and what happened to her best friend Sal the previous Easter.
The greatest strength of the book is the way the author conveys Grace’s personality. There were just one or two moments when an edge of adult wisdom showed through, but generally the story was Grace, totally and utterly. She’s a total mess, drinking too much, sleeping around, not getting on with her mum, cutting herself when it all gets too much. And there we have the greatest weakness of the book in a nutshell. The reader naturally has a lot of sympathy for Grace, who has had a difficult life and isn’t coping well, but she’s not a likeable character to read a whole book about. There’s a certain horrified fascination in watching her falling apart, like watching a train-wreck in excruciatingly slow motion or that accident on the other side of the motorway that you just can’t tear your eyes from, but it’s not something that makes for an enjoyable book.
As the two parallel stories unfolded, I began to find Grace more and more tedious. The chirpy, totally Grace-centric twittering, oblivious to the world around her, is no doubt authentically teenage, but it gets old really quickly. By the half-way point, I’d had enough and was reading faster and faster just to get to the end and find out the solution to the twin mysteries. That’s where we come to the other big weakness of the book: the plot is just so predictable. The kidnapping part of the story distills very quickly into a couple of obvious and unoriginal possibilities, and the real-life mystery is so blindingly obvious that it’s impossible to believe that Grace herself doesn’t work it out straight away. OK, there is a little bit of a swerve at one point, but it’s not enough to save things.
And then, just when all hope seems to be lost, the author pulls out an ending which, despite the predictability, is beautifully written and very moving. This is one of those books where I can admire the cleverness of the writing without reservation. The author gets convincingly into Grace’s head, and the voice is very consistent. It’s not enough, however, to mask the weak plotting, and somehow I never felt the empathy with Grace that one looks for with a main character. A disappointing three stars.