I’ve had a spectacularly good run of books recently–no ‘meh’ books, no rubbish books, just pure and simple wholehearted ‘love’ books. To the point where I wondered briefly if I’d hit some kind of literary breaking point where I was unable to distinguish quality.
Clearly rubbish though, as when I added my star review of More Than This to Goodreads, I saw I was clearly in a very large boat full of equally gabbling, effusive people spewing praise.
So: More Than This by Patrick Ness. The premise is simple but intriguing. A boy of seventeen drowns in the icy waters of the sea, smashed to death against the rocks. He dies. And then he wakes up, face down on the pavement outside the suburban house he grew up in. The town is empty, food rotting away, wilderness encroaching, and, past the train station, the town has been burnt to the ground. He’s alone.
The first third of the novel sees the boy–Seth–slowly figuring things out. Every time he sleeps he experiences vivid flashbacks, stronger than memories, of his life before he died: in a secret gay relationship with his best friend that is later revealed to the school and, more importantly, his parents, who still blame him for the abduction and injury of his younger brother by an escape convict, from the very house he has woken up in. He believes this is hell–cursed to be alone and replaying painful memories for eternity.
Until… well–you’ll just have to read the book. There isn’t actually a sentence that adequately explains what is going on, because there are several different explanations. The story provides a neat, Matrix-like sci-fi explanation for the whole situation, but there’s also the possibility that this is all a ‘dream’, invented by Seth’s mind as he dies. Each time something happens–a last-minute save, a fortuitous discovery–Seth reminds us ‘that is exactly what would happen in a story’ which adds a self-aware metafictional layer to the whole thing.
Which really makes it sound all a little bit dull–or at least, a bit up itself, when in fact it’s far from that. Those clever wheels within wheels are executed inside a smoothly built survival story, shot through with deep veins of intensely observed family and teen drama that smartly avoids any cliche. The Driver–the faceless, implacable villain–is outright scary, like a cross between the spacemen in ET and the truck in Duel, and is a great invention. The town itself has it’s own palpable sense of threat, especially when confined to a single house–when Seth first awakens in the house even going upstairs takes on a sickening edge of totemic fear. All of this without ever once openly relying on heavy duty ‘horror’ writing; you can’t see the puppet strings here, which is every writer’s dream.
Interestingly, this is categorised as YA fiction. YA fiction gets a bad rap–from me, often–because it calls to mind the endless Twilight spin-offs where dull, spineless girl meets handsome boy with this weeks brand of supernatural malady whereupon there’s a volume or so of clunkily written will-they-won’t-they. In the second book there’ll be another love interest, and she’ll be torn, in a hurray-for-sexism sort of way. That’s what people picture by YA–that or Goosebumps. However, I’m a big cheerleader for the YA authors that break out of that. even while they’re still telling stories about teenagers and their relationships. Take John Green, David Levithan… they’re superb writers. I haven’t read the Chaos Walking Trilogy, but it seems as if Patrick Ness is firmly–if not well above–that brand of writers. Which is interesting, because the cover of this book isn’t exactly teen friendly (if you subscribe to the standard marketing ploys that is.) I could easily have read this without ever considering it YA, other than its categorisation in Waterstones. But it does have–a little like One For Sorrow that I read recently–the vivid, unashamedly emotional heft to every line that “adult” books seem to shy away from, and in so many ways is exactly what it feels like to be a teenager.
I can’t strongly recommend this book enough. It fulfills on pretty much every level you’d want it to: smartly and sympathetically drawn characters, a plot that steams forward smartly and a dark, existential heart that doesn’t fail to disappoint right down to the last frustrating but exactly-what-it-should-be final line.