This newly published YA mystery is a gritty, contemporary, whodunnit quite unlike anything else I’ve read this year. Denise Brown’s writing is exquisite and utterly compelling, placing the reader completely inside the head of her fifteen-year-old first-person narrator, Summer. She has structured the story with such skill that I honestly could not tell where it was heading; hints are dropped from the erratic machinations of Summer’s mind, which has been damagingly fragmented by her under-age drinking, drug taking and as we gradually discover, years of irresponsible parenting.
Summer lives a life of school truancy, duvet-wrapped daytime TV, and nights spent hanging out at the local playpark with a group of older teenagers – drinking alcohol that they have taken from their parents or purchased with fake-IDs and taking pills. Her best-friend Courtney (Cee) is always the life and soul of the party and Summer clearly revels in her friendship and basks in its reflected glory. She also has a massive crush on Cee’s older brother Ritchie, who acts like a protective figure to the girls but appears to only view Summer as his sister’s friend while he dates a string of older girls. Whilst Summer has no responsibilities in her home life, Cee is relied upon by her mother (known around the estate as “The Ovary”) to care for her troupe of half siblings, all of whom have different fathers. This is the scene that is set out in the opening chapter, before Cee’s dramatic death. She has been travelling in the back of a car with Summer, both girls high on alcohol and pills and singing at the top of their lungs when the car crashes and Summer witnesses the vitality drain from her only real friend.
On her own release from hospital she is swamped with grief and guilt for persuading Cee to join her on the fateful journey, which is compounded by the gradual realisation that she is being unjustly blamed for supplying the pills which caused Cee’s heart to fail. This revelation is played out over social media, where the degree of love and loss for Cee is measured in likes and comments. Sadder than Summer’s grieving process is the image of lives validated or ruined by their perception on social channels. The cruel comments on her social posts develop into threatening notes through the letterbox, followed by foul deliveries and even an angry, abusive and foul-mouthed visitation from The Ovary warning her to stay away from the lantern ceremony organised in Cee’s memory.
As the countdown to this ceremony ratchets up the tension, my heart was breaking at the lack of support that Summer is given by the adults around her. Apart from platitudes about how strong she is and how everyone knew that she loved Cee more than anyone else, Summer’s mother is far too obsessed with losing the baby-weight she gained with half-brother Jonah and enjoying nights out, to pay any attention to her daughter’s feelings. At one point, Summer describes her mother as follows:
She’s buried her eyes in hollows above her cheekbones, and her hair clings to last night’s cigarettes.Chapter 26
Mum’s boyfriend; Jonah’s father, Mac, attempts to offer some advice about her unreliable friendships and her lack of school attendance, but it is clear that his main concern is his baby son who we learn has Down’s Syndrome. Mac provides the nurturing to his own offspring that “Mum” fails to provide to either of her children. As a reader, you comprehend the cause of Summer’s sofa-based stupor but desperately hope that she can find the impetus to break free from it and uncover the real identity of the drug-pusher.
This story is hard-hitting and tackles a number of social issues, including under-age sex, and the lack of self-respect and self-control exhibited by some youngsters when they have not benefited from a loving parental relationship. The difference in the level of care given to Jonah by Mac compared to Jonah and Summer’s mother is stark. This awakens Summer’s own caring side and you begin to hope that her love for her half-brother will be her salvation. She considers his experience of the world and concludes:
Whatever Jonah’s soul is made up of, it’s pink, and pure, and honest, and he follows me with his eyes wide open and trusting.Chapter 33
Another wonderful relationship is the portrayal of platonic care between Summer and her friend from primary school, Kofi. He is a noble figure, undaunted by his step-father’s homophobic physical abuse, and proves to be a steadfast voice of reason and love when Summer needs an ally.
Throughout the story, Summer makes reference to her bear-wolf, a furry beast living in a hollow tree in the woods beyond her estate. I was never entirely sure whether this was indeed a real animal or a drug-induced delusion. By the end of the tale I could best rationalise it as her longing for a comforting, warm figure who would provide love and protection to her lonely soul. In my opinion, great books are those which leave an imprint after you have read them. This one left me wondering just how many teenagers face the daily reality of the lives portrayed here in fiction, facing the consequences of poor decisions because they have not had reliable guidance from those who should provide love, boundaries and aspirations.
I highly recommend this book to a readership of 15+ and I am most grateful to Helen at LiterallyPR and Hashtag Press for providing me with an electronic copy and inviting me to join the blog tour; do check out the other stops on the schedule.