I’m sure many of you guys remember the furor over the Wall Street Journal essay “Darkness Too Visible“, which declared most of today’s popular young adult work to be much too dark for actual young adults. The controversy that piece generated resulted in #yasaves, a Twitter-powered show of support for young adult works unafraid to toe the line with regards to the subjects of their work and how delicately — or not — to portray them.
I don’t know if #yasaves generated as much as a hubbub in the United Kingdom, but if it did, I’m pretty sure young adult author Rachel Ward would have been one of its staunchest supporters. Her debut novel, “Numbers”, certainly fits the the “dark” YA bill, as it tells the story of two teenagers on a harrowing trek across England after a terrorist attack makes them the object of a police investigation.
The novel’s main protagonist is Jem, a troubled teenager who’s witnessed the death of her mother due to a heroin overdose. But more than just being traumatized by this horrific event, Jem is also burdened by an even more troubling talent — the ability to see the exact date of a person’s date, their “death date”, whenever she looks them in the eye.
Because of this ability, Jem has had to withdraw into herself, becoming an anti-social teen who’s constantly in trouble in school, with the authorities, and with her foster parent. She only has one friend, a classmate nicknamed Spider, and he has only earned that because of his own perseverance and bull-headedness.
While on a trip around London, Jem witnesses several similar death dates among tourists in line for a ride on the London Eye. Realizing that something terrible is about to happen, Jem convinces Spider to leave moments before the London Eye explodes because of a terrorist’s bomb.
But while the pair may have avoided that particular end, their lucky escape has made them possible suspects/witnesses in the eyes of the police. With both of them already possessing previous criminal records, Jem and Spider decided to flee to a seaside community that Spider remembers fondly from his youth.
The journey, however, is far from idyllic. With little in the way of food, water, or money, and with the police hot on pursuit, every step of Jem and Spider’s journey is fraught with peril. Will the pair escape and succeed in building a life outside of London? Or will they succumb to the future dictated by the numbers that only Jem can see?
With such a morbid premise, it’s hard to think of any other tone for “Numbers” to take but grim, and it certainly lives up to that expectation. From the very first few chapters, readers are immediately introduced to Jem’s prickly persona and her mother’s tragic death, and Ward manages to keep the atmosphere terse and taut all throughout her work.
This works in Ward’s favor whenever she needs to rachet up the suspense, and there are plenty of occasions for her to do so in the book. Since both of them are running from the law, Jem and Spider often find themselves in dangerous situations that are sure to have readers flipping through the pages just to see if the pair makes it out unscathed. Ward’s clean, unfurnished prose gives the proceedings a documentary feel that further heightens the atmosphere.
But while Jem’s acerbic personality is well-suited for a police chase through London and the surrounding environs, it’s less of a perfect fit during moments of introspection. Seen through Jem’s abrasive filter, quiet moments of reflection end up sounding like the incessant whining of a bratty 15-year-old convinced that the world is perpetually conspiring against her.
Perhaps this is what lends some of the more sensitive scenes in the novel a heavier feel than one would expect from a young adult book, and what may eventually concern some parents. The characters react to the situation almost exactly the way you would imagine an immature teenager would, and that is definitely something that parents of teenagers and young kids fear the most. The fact that, by all accounts, a lot of teenagers the world over have found themselves in the characters from this book certainly underscores this.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t change the fact that “Numbers” is a great read; in fact, it probably played a great part in making the novel compulsively readable. At turns gripping and harrowing, with a life-affirming message delivered in a non-saccharine way, it’s easy to see why it has won the accolades it has won. If doom and gloom is your thing, it’ll be good to take “Numbers” out for a spin.