The excellent publishing house, Barrington Stoke has teamed up with the talented author Bali Rai to produce a teen novel that addresses both contemporary issues of poverty and the timeless universal issues of empathy and friendship. Barrington Stoke specialise in books they call ‘super readable’ by which they mean that they are designed for reluctant readers or for those who find reading a problem because of issues like dyslexia. However, these lovely books (they are sewn as well as glued) make no compromises on quality – either in production or in the merits of the writing. This one is no exception to those rules.
Cal and Freya have been friends pretty much all their lives and they are edging closer to becoming boyfriend and girlfriend. Cal’s life would be great if it wasn’t for the bullying he has to put up with at school – Cal’s a quiet, decent boy who shares the outlook of his rather hippy mother and painter father and so he attracts bullies who like to label him a geek. Freya doesn’t care though , she likes him and she’s happy to be a geek too.
One day a new boy – Jacob – comes to the school and there’s no denying he’s tough to get to know. Try as he might Cal can’t break through Jacob’s sullen and closed attitude to everything and this is a mystery to him until one day he discovers one of Jacob’s secrets – his mother is so poor she has to visit a food bank to make ends meet. As we discover later, Jacob’s problems are multiple; he’s not just poor but has had to go through terrible tragedy, family breakdown and suicide.
Jacob hates the world because he thinks the world hates him. Slowly however Cal and Freya begin to make contact with him, slowly gaining his trust until it seems there might be a happy ending here. But no, life’s not really like that and the world of the friends is once again ripped open by bullies who thrive off humiliating and exploiting those who are different or who can be dominated.
Cal and Jacob find themselves in a fight that ends badly for everyone and Jacob goes on the run – only his real friends, Cal and Freya, have any clue where he might have gone. I wont tell you what the outcome is because you’ll want to read that for yourself – but what I can tell you is that after this nothing is quite the same for anyone again.
In a really excellent coda to the story, the author tells us why he felt he needed to write the book as his own protest against the rise and rise of poverty and the way the poor are demonised and humiliated in politics and popular culture. However, he says, raising awareness of poverty is not his sole purpose here – he also wants to celebrate the hope and decency that ordinary people are capable of despite the reprehensible social inequalities that seem to disfigure our society. Our ability to empathise and build friendships that reach across these equality gaps represents the best of us and acts to counter-balance our seeming willingness to oppress and humiliate those we see as weaker and less deserving than ourselves.
Mercifully there’s nothing preachy about Bali Rai’s book – it’s a belting read that romps along at a fair old pace and will keep the most reluctant reader turning the pages.
(This review was first published on www.letterpressproject.co.uk in May 2017)