The hum of their parts, Anna Jackson

G Brassi
Scholastic, $17.00,
ISBN 1869437098

Ella West
Longacre Press, $18.99,
ISBN 1877361488

Bernard Beckett
Longacre Press, $18.99,
ISBN 9781877361524

These three novels are all presented as thrillers. It is interesting to see thrillers being written especially for young adults, given that for many teenagers the thriller genre often represents their first introduction to adult literature. Novels by Len Deighton, Michael Crichton, Dan Brown and John Grisham offer fast-paced plots, straightforward prose, and an insight into adult occupations and institutions. Depending on which novel they are reading, teenagers can also gain detailed knowledge, some of it accurate, of biometrics security, global warming science, cold war espionage, diving techniques, legal terminology, brain surgery, or Japanese corporate etiquette, as well as more general knowledge of the history or geographical location of the book’s setting. They will also be exposed to attitudes and values that might have a considerable influence. Might young adult thrillers represent a safe alternative, and are teenagers likely to read them?

Paperchase is a well-plotted adventure story set in the real world, involving travel, a chase, unlikely alliances, criminal activity and more than one mystery; but this makes it sound much more like a thriller than it really is. Rather, it is an adventure story for younger readers, and is really more concerned with the relationship between two sisters than about the crime that is exposed. The two girls are 13 and 18, but the fairly basic plot is not likely to interest readers over 13. The girls, who are running away from an abusive stepfather in search of their estranged father, spend most of their time travelling on various forms of transport. The only real suspense doesn’t come into play till towards the end of the 10th chapter, and in the 11th it is rapidly resolved as the adults step in and take control.

Does Paperchase do better judged as a novel of character rather than as a thriller? The cover design emphasises both the closeness of, and the difference between, the two sisters, with the overexposed lighting emphasising the dramatic make-up of the older sister and the blotched skin of the plainer, more awkward younger sister. Brassi portrays the closeness of teenage sisters very well, capturing the shifts between irritation and neediness, the misunderstandings and the not always welcome insights. She has a good ear for teenage dialogue, and for the desultory way teenage conversation can move from topic to topic. But because the relationship between the sisters is essentially so comfortable, despite all the flare-ups between them, and because it also remains more or less the same throughout the novel, there is none of the tension that really would allow it to be the focus of the plot, the way a developing friendship between two girls provides such a tense focus in a YA novel like Mary K Harris’ Bus Girls.

Nor is the characterisation of the heroine and narrator, Gemma, quite convincing. She is the introverted artist, very different from her sister Brianna, the extrovert with the talent for drama who gets them into the whole mess in the first place. The lengthy descriptions of the landscape can be justified as more than simply travelogue, because of what they tell us about Gemma’s artistic vision. The end of the novel does in fact come not with the resolution of the crime plot, in as much as there was one, but with Gemma’s artistic ability taking on a central importance in resolving her relationship with her father. Gemma’s father, we learn, is also an artist, and when he sees one of her paintings he realises the “depth of loneliness” she is suffering without him in her life. Even more surprisingly, it turns out her breezy sister Brianna has “seen it in her drawings – oh, lots of times.” If this is going to work as a resolution, though, it has to be a resolution to a problem the reader, too, was aware of. But Gemma has not come across as a lonely, troubled character at all. It is surprising, too, to have the importance of a father figure emphasised at this stage of the novel, when most of the adults have been portrayed not only as peripheral characters, but also, when they have briefly come into focus, as shallow and unhelpful. This is not a novel that offers teenagers an insight into the adult world.

Thieves is set in a world at a remove from the ordinary lives of either children or adults. The heroine of the novel, Nicky, has the unusual talent of being able to “travel” – to disappear from a place and reappear elsewhere through the use of mind power alone. She has always been able to disappear from a situation and reappear in her closet, but when she makes the mistake of disappearing from a school class and so drawing attention to this talent of hers, she is removed for training by a group called the “Project”. It is an intriguing premise, and although the politics of the “Project” might be fictional, the questions raised about the relationships between education and power, care and control, intimacy and trust are questions that are relevant to teenagers in more ordinary situations.

As the thriller plot takes over, and Nicky finds herself being asked to get involved in more and more morally dubious activities for the “Project”, it is nice to have her continue to use her gift of travelling for her own, psychological ends as well – disappearing without quite intending to, for instance, from an awkward conversation with Paul, a character with whom she is becoming romantically involved. This relationship is interestingly handled, even though the focus here is not on character. I had little sense of different personalities and was surprised when I went back to check how closely described the other characters had been when they were first introduced. I read the novel with no real visual impression of the characters at all, perhaps because my attention was directed so much more on the situation and the plot. The ending is exhilarating, but I was pleased, too, to see there is going to be a sequel. I want to know what happens next, and to find out if I was right about some guesses I have made about what Nicky should believe.

Genesis is the most otherworldly of all these novels, and is likely to reach fewer readers than Thieves. I couldn’t interest my son Johnny in the book, his questions about it being designed to gauge how well it would measure up to Harry Potter.  Genesis is a very different sort of book, with few characters and limited characterisation, and very little action. Much of the novel consists not even of dialogue exactly, but is the transcript of an oral examination. The only action scenes are presented as the descriptions of holograph reconstructions of historical dramas invented by Anaximander, the examination candidate. These are interrupted by the examiners, as Anaximander is asked to reflect on and justify her interpretation of events as indicated by the details of her presentation. I was so engaged with the ideas and philosophical conundrums that I didn’t even notice at first how caught up I had become both in the historical story Anaximander was recounting for her examination, and in her own situation, as we come to suspect that the outcome of this examination might be even more terrifyingly decisive than we first realise.

While this might not be a novel for every teenager, some readers are likely to take to it with a passion. The novel is preceded by an epigraph from Douglas Hofstadter’s philosophical book The Mind’s I, a book I was embarrassingly evangelical about as a teenager. I still find myself having the evangelical hope that readers who love Genesis might go on to look up The Mind’s I, while trying to foist Genesis on their own friends at school. The epigraph from Hofstadter reads, “Is the soul more than the hum of its parts?” Genesis is a novel that itself hums with ideas, questions, and personality, so that the effect of its whole is significantly greater than any part of it. At the same time, the different sections of the novel could usefully be used as extracts to introduce ideas that might be explored in class discussions.

I found it not so much a novel that couldn’t be put down, as a novel that I often had to put down, so as to stop and think. But it is also a novel about soul, about the idea of soul and about the soul of the main character, Anaximander. This is a character we know almost entirely through the responses she gives during a five-hour oral examination on an historical figure who doesn’t even exist in our world, and by the end of the novel we know her as well as she knows her specialist topic, Adam Forde. Anaximander is a brilliant creation, one of the great characters of YA fiction. Read this book.


Anna Jackson teaches in the English Programme in the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.
Genesis won the YA category of this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards Children and Young Adults.


Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
Search the archive
Search by category