On the surface, they’ve got little in common. 15-year-old narrator Jess shows up at school wearing ‘paint-spattered boots loosely tied with red laces, only slightly torn leggings, black hoodie with sleeves pulled down over my tattoos’; she’s a bit of a Goth. Eden’s all ‘shiny blonde hair and long tanned legs’; she even looks good in the ‘crappy green school shirt that makes everyone [else] look sick as a dog’. Yet they are the closest of friends; ‘Eden gave me what I needed, before I even knew what it was’.
Little by little, their friendship is explored. They have grown up in the same town; in all but name, it’s Hebden Bridge (Liz Flanagan’s home town), with its Yorkshire hills and local features such as the Ted Hughes Arvon Centre at Lumb Bank, where the author worked for four years. Jess and Eden attend a writing course at the Centre which is so revelatory to each of them that the experience needs 20 or more pages. They like the same lad too; Eden’s with Liam at the moment, while Jess is keeping quiet about her feelings. Above all, both wrestle with past and present. Within the last year, they have each had life-jolting experiences. Jess comes to see that they have both been “stuck in pain and fear. Too stuck to speak up and be seen”.
Things start with the biggest of bangs. Eden disappears one night in September, just as the new school year is starting. She’d been out with Liam, but no-one admits to seeing her since. The kids at school, the Head, police, parents – everyone’s on at Jess, threatening her fragile stability; it will be a while before we learn the source of her issues. The pressure on Jess is intense; she can escape only through her fell running, roaming free over the moors. She’s convinced she can find Eden, knowing her ways, her favourite places, her history, her friends and enemies. This is powerful stuff and although David Fickling is marketing the novel as a thriller, it is a search of their inner selves for both girls, as much as a hunt for a missing person.
The anxious present is interrupted, and illuminated, by numerous extended flashbacks. This is Liz Flanagan’s debut novel, written as part of her PhD in Creative Writing. You’d hope her examiners rewarded her for the ambition of her narrative structure, even though its complexity may challenge some readers; I needed a second reading to be sure of the chronology of events. Within the flashbacks, there are some familiar YA ingredients; a couple of parties, some drugs and drink, viciously spiteful students at school, even the kind of empathetic English teacher we first met in Kes long ago. But there is also Flanagan’s impressively individual voice: an excruciating account of six or eight drunken youths, male and female, beating up their victim under a late-night railway bridge; sharply observed visits to a tattoo parlour and a reader of Tarot Cards; a chance discovery of a family secret that suddenly seems to make the inexplicable plain; a tragic death.
So, in contrast to the urgent search in the present, the story of how Jess and Eden have been damaged unfolds slowly. Sometimes, Flanagan delays explanations to the reader when her characters are already in the know – a technique which may please some readers while others might think the tension contrived, rather than the inevitable consequence of events. More importantly, there is acute sensitivity in Flanagan’s insights into traumatic experiences; and also in the portrayal of the main male character (not often a feature of YA fiction focussing on young women). The author’s afterword mentions that she ‘wrote this book from a place of empathy and solidarity for anyone who has experienced a hate crime’. A sense of such immediacy informs the novel.