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This issue’s cover illustration is from Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan. Thanks to Piccadilly Press for their help with this May cover.
‘Trouble’ is putting it mildly. Fifteen year old Hannah is pregnant by her undergraduate step-brother, Jay. Since her mum and step-dad are not likely to be overjoyed by this news, she’s relieved when her new school-friend, Aaron, volunteers to pretend to be the father to cover things up for a while. Hannah doesn’t tell him who the real father is, but Aaron’s got Trouble of his own, and he does want to do something which matters, something positive. He needs to make amends. We aren’t told why, though we do know it’s enough to have prompted his parents to move house and his consequent arrival at Hannah’s school. Eventually we learn that Aaron believes he was responsible for the death of his best friend Chris. You see, Chris had cheated on their mutual friend, Penny, on his hols and, well, one thing led to another.
All of this happens in an atmosphere torrid with Year 11 hormones. How this lot have time and energy to spare for GCSEs is a mystery. Every Friday night, most of the Year are down the park, rain or shine or freeze, playing at soap operas, drinking and rowing and shagging the night away. The air crackles with quick-fire smartarse abuse, seething jealousies, in-your-face posturing and other self-dramatising excesses. I have to say, my informants tell me it’s not too much like this round our way.
And yet… The central story of Hannah and Aaron plays out in increasing contrast to this frenetic, skin-deep world. The pair’s needs gently engage with each other. To begin with, Hannah is one of the crowd, adrift, overwhelmed, and sexually casual within the Friday night gang; though the detailed two or three page account of her fateful night with Jay is anything but casual. On the other hand, Aaron is reflective, bright and well-read enough to throw in the odd reference to Dante; but he is hobbled by guilt. They do have a couple of friends who don’t keep step with the crowd – one gay, one serious and sporty. Each also receives caring advice from across the generations from a couple of residents in the same home: Hannah’s unshockable Gran, and Neville, a curmudgeonly former History lecturer whom Aaron visits each week in another attempt to do something which counts.
The impending birth drives the novel along and as things move towards the explosive revelations, their parents are by turn distraught, powerless, unable to communicate, and yet willing to do anything for their children. Some bonds are severed, others grow and strengthen. Some loose ends remain loose. A tentative hope of a future for Hannah and Aaron emerges, based on their hard-won, well-rooted friendship.
YA novelists increasingly enjoy switching between 1st person narrators, which here allows us sympathetically inside Hannah and Aaron’s changing emotions and perspectives, lending strength to this welcome first novel. I am less sure about Non Pratt’s decision to delay, and delay, the reasons for Aaron’s guilt. Other than deliberately teasing the reader, there was no narrative reason why this information was not revealed on several earlier occasions when it seemed obvious to do so.