Having read HappyHead cover to cover in one sitting, I can confirm that it is indeed, compelling, dark and thrilling. For a debut novelist, Josh Silver has written a remarkably assured story, which combines a rawly emotional romance with a dystopian take on the wellness industry.
The voice of seventeen year old Sebastian who is struggling to be his authentic self, in a family and an environment where his sexual orientation has been met with hostility, cries out for understanding and validation. There is not a single false note as Seb fights for approval, love and ultimately survival in an experimental treatment facility for emotionally damaged teens. The cover makes reference to The Hunger Games and the comparison holds true in that we are plunged into a nightmarish scenario where teens are subjected to manipulation by adults with nefarious intent, are forced to compete with each other and have to rely on their instincts as to whom they can trust when the challenges become increasingly dangerous.
The author’s own experience as a mental health nurse has fed into his brilliantly imagined scenario of an isolated wellness facility, situated in the Scottish wilderness where stressed and damaged teenagers can escape the pressures imposed upon them by schools, parents, peers and even themselves, in the relentless pursuit of perfection. The oppressive atmosphere of the story starts to build from page one, with Seb crammed in the back of the family car with his scheming younger sister while his parents become increasingly tense at the SatNav’s inability to navigate the rural Scottish landscape. By the time the car is met on the road by an employee of HappyHead whom Seb nicknames Antiseptic, you are already silently screaming “just get back in the car and go home to Woking!” Then, as Seb shuffles into the lecture theatre with all eyes on him, the last arrival of the first cohort of 100 students, we experience his insecurity through his inner monologue. Burning with humiliation, becoming the object of snarky comments, he is already mentally rehearsing advice that he’s no doubt heard many times from his mum about finding his inner confidence…and then he spots Ice Eyes. A chiselled, manga-like apparition with tattoos emerging from under his tatty jumper. And the tension ratchets up another notch!
I so enjoyed the unfolding of the plot that I don’t wish to discuss any details that might provide spoilers but will just say that the suspense builds brilliantly, from an initial sense of unease to eventual extreme anxiety as the challenges faced by the protagonists become increasingly unhinged. Like all the best dystopian fiction this story work because it is based on real truths; teenagers are facing too many societal pressures, homophobic bullying does still exist and there are sadly individuals who exploit the vulnerability of others. The characters’ back stories are revealed in carefully timed and often heart-breaking recollections and reveals, demonstrating the real life experiences which resulted in mental health issues for these unfortunate young people. The survival dilemma faced by Seb, of whether to reveal his true self or play to please the adults running the experiment, is nail-biting for it is soon clear that this is a competition not a retreat! And layered on top of this struggle is the beautifully observed blossoming of first love. The tender romance between Seb and Finn at the heart of HappyHead is described in searingly honest language and I found it very affecting. It adds another seam of emotional depth, demanding the reader’s compassion for the teen protagonists as they seek to escape their dystopian nightmare whilst continuing to add to your fears for their survival. The ending is sufficiently ambiguous to leave you desperate for a sequel, which I certainly hope that Josh Silver will be writing. I highly recommend HappyHead for a readership of 14+.
I wish to thank Liz Scott and Rock the Boat Books for providing me with a review copy of HappyHead prior to publication on 16th March 2023.