It’s the middle of the night. Beautiful and popular High School senior Liz Valchar has been celebrating her 18th birthday with her ‘cool crew’ friends on her parents’ luxury yacht, moored off her Connecticut home town. Booze, weed, exhaustion. Liz wakes to a thump-thumping on the side of the boat, though this doesn’t seem to disturb her sleeping friends. Up on deck, she peers into the water to discover her own corpse, thumping gently against the boat’s side.
She’s in a kind of limbo, where she is soon joined by Alex, a classmate from a poorer social stratum who was killed by a hit-and-run driver a year or so previously. In life, Liz’s set had excluded and humiliated Alex and his kind; they shared nothing but their dislike. Now, in death, they are able to revisit together the scenes of each others’ memories and also the developing present of Liz’s friends and their families as they try to move on. To her increasing horror, Liz has much to learn, most of it disturbing and painful, for her new perspective reveals that little is, or has been, what it seems. Most of all, she has to reassess a self-absorbed life focussed on fashion, make-up, status, socialising and wealth. From Alex’s viewpoint, no matter how hot Liz looked, she’s been nothing but a spoiled brat; and she comes to see that he is all too right.
Any plot set in an American High School threatens sentimentality and platitude – proms and parties, Relationships and a flood of omigod melodramas about not very much. Hard to avoid a legacy stretching from Sweet Valley High to Glee. There is cliché in the conversations, behaviour and values of Liz’s friends – but rightly so, since the models such kids use to shape their lives are themselves clichés derived from advertising, soap operas and the American version of class snobbery. Here, the slow stripping away of the sugared surfaces of the lives of Liz, her family and her friends, reveals a thriller involving murder and betrayal; always balanced by Liz’s recognitions about herself and the mess of her life.
The book’s back cover mentions The Lovely Bones, and it’s difficult to avoid the echo of the narrative viewpoint. The emphasis on self-understanding separates the two books, however, and teenage readers will probably not have met Alice Sebold’s novel. There is much that many YA readers will feel they recognise, even in their different British context: from anorexia (for once, thoughtfully explored) to the overwhelming imperatives of the search for popularity. Although cutting fifty pages might have made the thriller element tighter, this is a book which enjoyably balances suspense and reflection.