Life and death before 20, Angelina Sbroma

Catch Me When You Fall
Eileen Merriman
Penguin, $20.00,
ISBN 9780143770930

Ash Arising
Mandy Hager
Penguin, $20.00,
ISBN 9780143772439

Eileen Merriman’s Catch Me When You Fall – a title that provokes a head-tilt to begin with and that takes multiple possible meanings upon reading the book – is narrated by 17-year-old Alex Byrd, and it tells the story of a particular autumn (or fall, as they would say in America) in her life. We meet Alex on the first page waiting to have blood taken at Canterbury Health Laboratories, and this is a sign of things to come. We learn that Alex survived a bout with acute myeloid leukaemia at the age of 13 and that, after a five-year reprieve, the leukaemia has returned. It is no surprise to learn that Merriman is a haematology consultant as well as an author. The story shows a strong working knowledge of hospitals, and it is full of accurately-rendered medical practice and medical terminology. Alex herself remarks: “At the age of thirteen, I’d learnt a whole new language.” The book is liberally sprinkled with words like neutropenic, mucositis, haemoglobin, defibrotide, parancentesis; these words come to pack something of an emotional punch for the reader, making clear the particular, wrenching expertise that Alex’s illness has forced her to acquire. 

Even in relapse, Alex is a 17-year-old coming into her own adulthood: it is also no surprise that this is, above all, a love story, for all that it unfolds in wards and isolation rooms as well as teenage bedrooms with the door left ajar to appease watchful parents. In the waiting room of Canterbury Health Laboratories on the first page, Alex meets Jamie Orange, Nordic teen thespian, rehearsing the role of Phantom of the Opera in the school play. Alex and Jamie fall hard and fast for each other, with the particular abandon that adolescence both allows and encourages: it is a courtship of middle-of-the-night texting, frantic make-out sessions, sneaking out, breaking curfew, communicating through song titles, and being convinced that no one could have ever felt like this before. Alex and Jamie act, in short, like teenagers. This adolescent universality works in counterpoint to the peculiar acuteness of the situations of both characters. Alex, undergoing chemo- and radio-therapy in her hospital isolation room in preparation for a bone marrow transplant, movingly compares herself to Schrödinger’s cat – locked in a box with a source of radiation and a poison, neither alive nor dead. But it is slowly revealed over the course of the story that Jamie, like Alex, is relapsing (this time into mental illness), and that Jamie, like Alex, is struggling for his life.

This book, like Merriman’s first, Pieces of You, is interested in life and death struggles, and the way that these struggles interact with the more everyday agonies and ecstasies of coming-of-age. It is worth asking whether this is precisely why novels like this one, describing such high stakes circumstances, find so ready a home in the YA genre. Adolescence is a time of firsts, of large and swooping feelings without years of hindsight and perspective behind them. Everything becomes a little bit life-and-death in those years, even if nothing particularly out of the ordinary is happening. The high stakes of cancer, of psychosis, of bitter lows and soaring highs, have a peculiar resonance when set against life as a teenager:  Am feeling,”  Jamie texts to Alex, early on in the story, “simultaneously euphoric and despondent, how about you?” This feeling is universally relatable, even as it is also, in Jamie’s case, a symptom. Merriman balances these forces well. Alex is engaging and likeable, a recognisable teen in her dreams and her fears and her own sometimes uncomfortably self-aware self-absorption, for all that her circumstances make these things acute. 

The story is well-paced and absorbing, and Alex’s love for her family, her friends, and her place (the novel is full of references to Christchurch landmarks, and setting is described with overwhelming affection) is clear. Her love story with Jamie is endearing – a little too much but, then, love should be a little too much at 17. Not being 17, I couldn’t quite get behind the roomful of rose petals but, even from this distance, the story is effective in its depiction of  the desperation inspired by love and fear of loss.  

Mandy Hager’s Ash Arising is another tale in which the highs and lows of adolescence are more than matched and mirrored by mental and physical trauma in the life of  its teenage protagonist, even if the context is very different. Where the coded language of Catch Me When You Fall is medical, here it is political and revolutionary: terms like “fake news”, “Percenter”, “mainstream media”, “dog-whistling”, “propaganda”, “fascist” and “terrorist” make the subject of the novel clear; they also make clear how closely the dystopian future the novel represents is extrapolated from current political discourse. Paramilitary force Sovereign Aotearoa proclaims it their mission to “make New Zealand great again”. Hearing this kind of rhetoric alongside rural Kiwi slang like “rattle ya dags” brings larger political forces  home to New Zealand, literally. New Zealand, in this future, is a battleground between superpowers – the Western Alliance and the United People’s Republic – and its democracy and social institutions are being dismantled by a corrupt government. Wellington is both recognisable and not: there are strict curfews,  ID checkpoints along the northern motorway, a tent city stretching from Frank Kitts Park to Civic Square, black helicopters overhead, and international warships stationed in the harbour. In the middle of all of this, Ash McCarthy, who has already lost both of his parents to political assassination, and who is desperately trying to care for his autistic brother Mikey and his dementia-affected grandmother, finds himself at the centre of a groundswell of resistance and, indeed, revolution.

Readers of The Nature of Ash, the book to which this is a sequel, will be familiar with Ash and his circle, but this book works very well as a stand-alone. That the stakes are life-and-death are evident from the first: in The Nature of Ash, Ash exposed corruption at the highest levels of government; this book finds him in hiding with his family and friends, being slowly ground down by the international community’s failure to respond. Within only a few pages, he is being pursued on land and from the air by government and Western Alliance forces. What follows is capture, interrogation, and physical and mental torture on a not-yet-man already deeply affected by post-traumatic stress and grief.

The rollicking pace does not let up: this novel is action-packed, with potentially fatal plot convulsions taking place at least once a chapter. This makes the story a true page-turner, and I certainly read it in a sitting. Hager is very effective at mixing action with exposition, so that the reader doesn’t get lost in the strands of the complex political plot being exposed. Crucially, the drama is leavened and lightened by the found family that is also such a strong focus in the novel, so that each betrayal and backward step is matched by a show of support that successfully prevents the book from being a despairing read. Ash himself is slightly sceptical about this found family – “some half-arsed, hot-glued family we have here” – but the glue holds in heartening and affirming ways. As Ash tells us: “You can’t top this.” Most affecting is Ash’s relationship with his brother Mikey, who, despite being a hulking adolescent himself, remains childlike due to his autism. Mikey functions in the novel as a kind of emotional barometer for Ash, putting all of the emotions that Ash won’t allow himself fully on display: “Want Dad, want home, want happy.” Mikey is certainly an effective barometer, for both Ash and the reader, as to who, in the increasingly complex web the book weaves, can be trusted.

Ash insists at various points before the novel’s satisfyingly incomplete conclusion that he doesn’t understand his central status, both as enemy of the corrupt state, and as de facto leader of the resistance. But he is central, made special and singular by the characters who surround him as well as by narrative structure. Again, this can be put down to genre, and it speaks to the ways that YA literature portrays the teens at their centre. They are always just average (however super-powered); they are always the centre of the universe, mirroring the particular life-and-death perspective of adolescence itself. Hager’s novel is an engaging and enjoyable example.

Angelina Sbroma has recently been awarded her PhD on mortality in children’s literature at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in Literature, Review, Young adults
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