Additive, painful and uplifting all at the same time.
Fifteen year old Nathan always thought he came second to his older brother. Al was clever, talented and ambitious. He was going to Cambridge: Al was going to prove to the world that it was possible to claim the world from a Council estate in Manchester. Then everything changed. Nathan arrived home from school to find Al had hung himself with his school tie. It doesn’t make sense. Nathan is convinced there is a reason for Al’s unexpected suicide and he is determined to discover the truth, whatever the cost.
This is one of the most impactful YA books I’ve ever read. It’s additive, painful and uplifting all at the same time.
Officially this is a dual narrative with two very different, but both equally believable, voices from Nathan and Al’s classmate come secret friend, Megan. (Although there are actually three voices because short – yet powerful – extracts from Al start each chapter.) All three voices exactly capture the characters and all three are appealing, albeit each in a very different way. The depth of their individual storylines is also remarkable, while the portrayal of a family struggling with loss is especially moving. (The reader almost wants to reach into the book to comfort them.)
Equally impressive is the way every supporting character is realised in as much detail as the main characters. These supporting characters aren’t always as likeable (although I loved big brother Saul) but they all feel very realistic – Lauren, Kyle, Lewi, Eli and Tara especially. When reading this book, I was also struck by the way so many characters become swept along with group behaviour and fail to speak up. (Alongside reading this, I have been listening to an extraordinary YA book about a Jewish teenager at the start of World War Two and found the similarity between behaviour in the Nazi regime and modern British teenagers striking.)
The subject matter is painful and author, Danielle Jawando, quite rightly doesn’t try to hide this. (Indeed, my proof copy came with the warning that “this novel contains themes that some readers may find upsetting, including suicide and intense bullying.”) Some scenes are hard to read, notably the climatic bullying scene. However, the plot is so gripping that this book is hard – near impossible – to put down. Nathan is determined to find the reason why Al would take his own life and we quickly become equally focused. I was surprised that, while I could speculate on some aspects, the full story only became clear near the very end.
From this review, you might think this book – while undoubtedly brilliant – would be a depressing read. The subject matter certainly isn’t easy but the overall message is uplifting. It’s about coming to terms with heartbreak and about having the strength to stand up as an individual for who you are and to speak out instead of conforming blindly.
If you enjoyed this, I would suggest you read Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence.
Publication Date: March 2020
Publisher: Simon and Schuster