Sunday, September 18, 2011

She has my number

If you're friends with someone who knows the exact date that you would die, would you ask him to tell it to you? Tough question. On one hand, knowing the exact date of your death would somehow let you live your life to the fullest. On the other hand, I'm sure that you would go crazy if you'd know. Exact dates of death are one of the things that make Rachel Ward's debut novel for young adults, Numbers, very interesting.

In Numbers, Ward is no big fan of glamorized characters. The main character, Jem, is an introvert 16-year-old who seems to be always in the center of trouble. She lives with a social worker as she's an orphan (her mother OD'd on heroin). Spider, the black boy who eventually becomes her boyfriend, is a runner for drug dealers. Even though Spider knows Jem's unnatural ability, he doesn't know that he only has days to live. These are the characters that we seldom see in YA fiction today, giving the novel somewhat of a fresh, raw feeling to it.

Jem has an unusual gift -- she can see the exact dates when people are going to die when she sees them in the eye. When you think about it, it's not exactly a gift but a curse. One day, while she and Spider were out in London, she sees the same dates on people who are about to ride the London Eye. She forces Spider to flee the place just minutes away before the London Eye is bombed. And because of their juvenile records, the entire nation launches a manhunt for the pair. The press reports that they are simply witnesses, but the two know that there's a huge chance that they would be blamed for the attack. Records for suspension? Check. Drugs? Check. Possession of a dangerous weapon while in school? Check. Parents non-existing? Check.

Numbers then becomes a series of chapters with the cat-and-mouse theme. Jem and Spider flee to places, often stealing cars and then ditching them. Eventually, Jem and Spider get separated after a run with the police and Spider is taken into custody. Jem literally finds sanctuary in a cathedral and then negotiates with the police to see Spider in exchange for talking to them. Surprisingly, the police agree.

Because we know that Numbers is far grittier than any YA novel, Spider indeed dies on the day that he and Jem are reunited. However, his death is quite anti-climatic. I feel that this is one of the weaknesses of the novel, as the reader somehow feels cheated that Spider goes through a lot in the book just to die because of a careless slip. Nevertheless, the novel's conclusion more than makes up for it. The ending of Numbers is just too good to mention here. It begs for a sequel. (And, thankfully, there is!)

Ward's novel, for all its aspects about troubled youth and racial prejudice, is still basically a love story. The novel does become unpredictable in some parts, but all can be forgiven because of the juicy ending. There are parts in the novel that make it hard for the reader to relate to either Jem or Spider, too. But the overall impression I got when reading Numbers is one of hopefulness. Troubled youths Jem and Spider may be, but there's a deep motivation for the reader to continue in the hope that these two somehow find redemption. In a way, the pair get to it. Spider realizes that it is his love for Jem that can make him a better person. Jem, even without Spider, she takes on the care of Karen, her social worker, who becomes terminally ill after a few years. In her own terms, Jem becomes someone responsible.

Read this book if:
  1. You were once a troubled youth yourself.
  2. You like unconventional love stories.
  3. You're craving for YA fiction that isn't sugary sweet.


martine said...

Sounds excellent
thanks for the review

Peter S. said...

Hi, Martine! It is! You're welcome.

Stepford Mum said...

Peter, this sounds so sad!! But definitely interesting. Have you read Chris Cleave's Incendiary? Sounds like this is the YA version, of sorts.

Peter S. said...

Hello, Stepford Mum! Yes, I've read Incendiary and it's one good novel. Actually, I received an email from Chris Cleave as soon as I reviewed it!

ram said...

i still ask the date,hehe!

Peter S. said...

@ram: Of course!