Blame is a dramatic and daring young adult novel. It is action packed pretty much from beginning to end and offers a believable vision of a near future.
How much does the identity of an author matter when considering a novel? Often the backgrounds or indiscretions of authors never much affect the way audiences consider a work. But in other cases it can’t help but get in the way. Knowing the sexuality of Oscar Wilde highlights the innuendos he tried to cloak from those likely to take offence, whilst the elusiveness and limited output of J.D.Salinger brings a mystique to his famous book The Catcher in the Rye. Despite the assertion from Roland Barthes (and excuse me getting academic here) that the author is dead – that is the author’s intentions and biography are irrelevant to the interpretation of a text – it doesn’t seem to be the case. This is especially illustrated by knowing we live in a world that likes to churn out celebrities. The Booker Prize winners will find themselves interviewed until they lose their voices and no doubt as they open up the papers on Sunday they may see themselves as the main feature of the Sunday Times Review.
Alas, people like to know about authors: how they write, what their inspirations are and how they name their pets, etc. Therefore, looking at the luminous orange cover of Blame I found myself wondering if the author was the same Simon Mayo of Radio 2 and Radio Five Live fame (incidentally, hello to Jason Isaacs!). The problem is I’ve never seen his name written down in anything other than BBC authorised font before. The cover here with its jailhouse black and orange doesn’t scream Mr. Nice Guy of radio – Simon Mayo. I googled it immediately needing the answer, and once I learnt that it was him, wondered why the hell I needed to know in the first place (and also, did I really think there would be many more ‘Mayo’s’?) Does a book not deserve to be judged solely on its artistic credentials, or will it always be live in the shadow of its author? Of interest to me was Simon Mayo’s experience in reviewing film. Being half of Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, Simon Mayo knows a little something himself about judging the artistic. I wondered if watching the above average volume of films has taught him a thing or two about tone and plot. Does the critic write a good story?
To cut out any unnecessary suspense, the answer is he does. Blame is a dramatic and daring young adult novel. It is action packed pretty much from beginning to end and offers a believable vision of a near future.
The story follows brother and sister, Mattie and Ant, and their struggles in a dark near future where people are punished for the crimes of their relatives if those relatives do not serve time themselves. Ant (or Abigail, formally) and Mattie are locked up for the crimes their parents were never punished for, with them are their foster parents Dan and Gina who are also captured for the same reason. As the story is introduced we are given a short reflection on how society came to the point of locking up children and families. This is one of the best aspects of the book, the strongest of dystopian stories make sure that its core elements are believable. The oppressive prison system has developed after a great economic depression (so far so convincing), as the effects hit society and yet again normal people suffer in the downturn, the atmosphere sours and people search for people to blame/punish (still plausible), then, the United States instils a Heritage Crime policy to make sure crimes don’t go unpunished (yep still buying it) and soon – as illustrated by an event where drug dealers are doing community service and their relatives are watching from an expensive crime-funded car so they are forced to work too – the UK decides to take on the policy (plausible). Heritage crime may be more conceivable than we might think, a ready example is the idea that countries that have benefitted from the slave trade in the past should pay back a debt to those who suffered under it.
Mayo convincingly postulates that it only takes a certain amount of despair and bitterness to want to see people punished. The ‘Muslim Travel Ban’ in the states illustrates how easy it is to see something all but unforeseeable come to life as forces seek to punish populations for individual crimes.
So from their prison cell and wearing a ‘strap’ that tracks them, Ant and Mattie are struggling with the new system. Mattie is younger, calm and loveable, whereas Ant is quick witted, intelligent, cagey and impulsive. Ant is an explosive force from beginning to end. She is refreshing in that she is a strong female character and defined by her actions rather than relationships to others. Ant from the get go, can not sit still, she taunts the prison officers and generally acts before she thinks. She is often locked in seclusion for her outbursts and transgressions. She is a fun, but hard character and drives the plot forward with her determination not to be blamed for the crimes of others.
Before you’ve barely got in to the introduction, things kick off. There is tension in the prison and it is at breaking point and Ant exploits and aggravates the situation. Her passion is palpable, but also leaves you with your forehead in your hand going, ‘why? why can’t you be quiet for one minute.’ Ant gets herself and often her family into trouble regularly, but ultimately all her actions serve a purpose. When it appears that she has gone too far -sneaking off to punish some prisoners making up lies about her brother and threatening the size of their sentence and starting the prison riot – it turns out to be not just her actions that created the chaos. Things from this point just explode. There is a full scale riot with blood and guts thrown in. There is an escape attempt and a battle to stay free outside and also a crescendo finish where the ‘Strutters’ ( those serving time for heritage crimes) must face the full might of the prison system and expose it for its hypocrisy.
Overall I think the characters are strong and not two-dimensional. I like the fact that (and this may just be me here) Ant can be so explosive that she irritates, but on closing the book you realise that in order for the plot to progress you need a character that will stick to her guns rather than weighing up the pros and cons otherwise they would all still be sitting in their cells. The sibling relationship illustrates a division of characteristics that complement each other, Ant is strong, Mattie is timid, Ant is reckless, whilst Mattie is considered. Together they manage to navigate a near impossible situation. Also, the imagery is direct and vivid. The violence that engulfs the prison is not shied away from and I found myself wondering how the readership would like it. There are stabbings, beatings and gunshots. Some of the imagery near the end of the book is also slightly tortuous. But far be it from me to say that any demographic can’t cope with such imagery, contemporary young adult fiction is bold and unafraid and I think Simon Mayo has taken the an unshrinking approach that ultimately shows he treats his readers as mature.
The only thing that is worth bringing to attention is that though the plot resolves itself quite nicely, the structure is a little haphazard. The majority of the book is action and there is little let up from beginning to end. The introduction is brief and is not so much followed by acts, but by a large individual segment of story is a scrum of fighting, running and fast paced disaster. This is not to say that this is not what kids like, but there are points when the tone is so fast paced and so relentless that some parts blur into one and would benefit from the odd pause to give the novel a more cohesive shape. The action itself is surprisingly rough and cinematic. There are some great touches for instance the introduction of police drones that scan the landscape for escapees that surely cannot be anything other than tomorrow’s reality. Also, the moment when the children discover a man in the woods playing old records and actually naming his favourites. Here it is impossible not to think of Simon Mayo the DJ employing some artistic licence so he can plant a few songs into his book.
Blame is an enjoyable read and a believable vision of a future that could conceivably befall a society when anger trumps rationality. Whomever wrote this, be it DJ or doctor or cleaner, it is a fine novel and a great piece of fiction for young adults to get their teeth into.
Blame is published by Corgi Children’s and is available to purchase here.
Simon Mayo is one of Britain’s best-loved and well-known radio presenters. He has worked on BBC radio since 1981 and is now the presenter of ‘Drivetime’ on BBC Radio 2, which features the regular ‘Book Club’ show. He is also the co-presenter of “Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review” on BBC Radio 5 Live. In 2008, Mayo was recognized as the “radio broadcaster of the year” at the 34th annual Broadcasting Press Guild Awards and the “Speech Broadcaster of the Year” at the Sony Radio Academy Awards. To find out more about Simon and his ITCH books go to www.itch-books.co.uk
Reviewed by Jessica Gregory
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