Simon Packham is among today’s best writers of realistic, contemporary teen fiction; he deserves to be far better known than he currently is. His previous book, Silenced, in which a boy deals with the death of his best friend, was one of the most profoundly affecting teenage books I’ve ever read.
In Firewallers, his latest book, Jess the narrator comes home from an awful day at school to find her mum and sister in tears. Her dad’s been suspended from work and gone to stay with her grandma, and newshounds are baying at their door. Jess knows it’s something to do with a complicated financial deal her dad’s been working on, but he’ll sort it out – he always does. She has far more pressing concerns of her own – her ex-boyfriend’s been texting private images of her to the entire class. So when her mum announces that night that they’re going away, Jess is relieved; at least she won’t have to face the smirks at school.
Then Jess finds out they’re going to join Mum’s mad, eco-freak friend who lives in a commune on a Scottish island. There’s no modern technology! No way of communicating with her friends! They’re not allowed any make-up, or hair products – even shampoo! How will she cope? The other teenagers seem like a bunch of fresh-air loving weirdoes grateful for the opportunity to ‘have a proper childhood’. But then Jess gets to know them . . . The teenagers, ‘the Firewallers’ of the title, are as desperate to get back to the real world as she is.
While Jess immerses herself in the Firewallers, she refuses to ask herself the awkward questions: Why are both her mum and sister gradually falling apart? Why has her mum taken them away to this island rather than supporting her dad? What’s the real reason her dad was suspended? The moment she finds out is truly shocking and heartbreaking.
Simon Packham never shies away from difficult issues, but he covers them with great humour and lightness of touch. In Jess, he has captured the voice of a teenage girl brilliantly: she’s funny, stroppy, self-obsessed, loving, and very likeable. Anyone who knows The Railway Children will recognise Firewallers as a modern day re-telling, particularly at the very end. All teenagers – male and female – should read this immensely entertaining, topical and thought-provoking book.