I requested this by NetGalley based on a mistake. That is to say, I saw the name “David Arnold” and somehow thought that was the same person as “David Almond” — I’ve read several of his books, and enjoyed them, so a mere glimpse at the blurb for this made me think I’d like it too. When I opened the file and saw the “Also by…” page I realised my mistake, but decided to give it a go anyway. Sure enough, the book was very different from a David Almond novel, but I enjoyed it anyway.
It’s the kind of YA contemporary that I find to be rather hit and miss. The characters are very philosophical and tend to talk in poetic metaphors. At least one of them is interested in so-called classic literature, even though the vast majority of teenagers who have read “The Outsiders” did so because it was on a reading list and not because they felt like it. There are many meaningful places that connect to observations about art and love in a manner that could so easily be pretentious.
But, for me, this one was a hit rather than a miss. Although it didn’t feel entirely realistic, I didn’t feel like that mattered. And besides, who doesn’t have pretentious philosophical thoughts now and again? Maybe mine aren’t poetically phrased and I don’t know anything about modern art and I haven’t found a classic novel that I identify with, but I’ve definitely spent my time musing on the meaning of life and how you define memories and all that stuff. Characters in a novel just manage to do it more artistically.
It also features one of my favourite themes, which is the idea of a found family. In this case, it’s a bunch of kids of varying ages (the youngest is eleven, whereas I think the oldest is in his twenties) who have had some kind of trauma in their past. This might be as ‘simple’ as a dad dying of cancer (obviously not simple to experience, but relatively conventional as tragedies go), or as complicated as the murder of family during a civil war, but they’ve all ended up in the same place, and they learn to trust and depend on each other.
I was also intrigued by the character of Vic because he has Moebius Syndrome, which I hadn’t heard of before. David Arnold talks a bit more about it in the note at the back, including the names of various people he spoke to and organisations that educate on the subject, but the book itself does an effective job of explaining it in its own right. Essentially, it causes facial paralysis, which for Vic means he can’t blink or smile. (I can’t imagine not being able to raise my eyebrows. That’s 90% of my personal expression gone right there.)
Not only did this allow for a particular character journey in terms of dealing with bullying, feeling like an outsider, and learning to accept himself, but I also enjoy books that introduce me to new things, especially when it might stop me being insensitive in future if I ever encounter somebody with the same condition. That said, Moebius is quite rare, so I don’t know how likely that is.
There is a certain amount of romance in this book, which you might expect from the genre of poetic, philosophical contemporary YA about teenagers with tragic backstories (I’m sorry, but it’s true). Thankfully, this one avoided a lot of the particular tropes that annoy me, particularly as it developed quite slowly, and one could see the characters becoming friends before they were interested in each other romantically. It also wasn’t the sole focus of the book, as Vic’s relationship with the other characters and the general friendship / found family idea was more central.
The book skips between past and present because it uses interviews with police officers (indicating that something has happened, although we don’t know what it is until quite a lot later in the book), interspersed with how Vic met the other ‘Kids of Appetite’ (as they name themselves). Since they follow quite a different format it’s relatively easy to keep track of what’s going on, but due to some formatting issues with the ARC I found myself muddled once or twice. This is unlikely to be a problem with the final published version, but does mean I took a bit longer to get into the story, as I was somewhat confused.
I imagine this isn’t going to be a book for everybody. The poetic philosophical musings on the nature of life are definitely less pretentious and more believable than others I’ve come across in YA, and less likely to become a meme (“it’s a metaphor”, anyone?), but may still seem over the top to some people. I personally found it easier to enjoy if I didn’t try to think about how realistic it was and instead just thought about what they were saying and enjoyed it at face value. Sometimes I’m very cynical while reading YA books, but I didn’t take that approach with this one, and enjoyed it a lot more as a result.
There are a few quotes I particularly liked and empathised with, but one of them was from right at the beginning — 3% of the way through, if you trust my Kindle.
I say, “You ever hear that a person has to go through fire to become who they’re meant to be?”
Mendes sips her coffee, nods. “Sure.”
“I’ve always wanted to be strong, Miss Mendes. I just wish there wasn’t so much fire.”
There were also a few I highlighted just because they amused me, like where Vic says, “You know, Mad, between this and the haircut, you’re pretty preoccupied with how I style my cranium.” It’s not overtly sassy or funny the way some books are, but there’s still a fair amount of amusement in there, whether created by bizarre situations or sardonic remarks.
This isn’t the kind of book I could relate to in terms of events, because I haven’t lived the particular kind of life that it features, nor do I have a tragic backstory. However, there were a fair number of thoughts and feelings that resonated, and I think that’s what the focus of this should be: the feelings it conveys, regardless of the context for them. That way, you get the full benefit of Arnold’s writing and all its poetry, without cynicism getting in the way.
But who knows? Maybe I’m being cynical about how other people will respond to this, and I should just shut up and let you read it for yourself.