Drew has just been accepted by Cooke’s, the most prestigious school in the area and where he will study for his A-levels. The odds were doubly stacked against him as he comes from one of the most deprived and notorious estates in the city. He remains an outsider when the academic year begins, struggling to deal with his family’s poverty when kit is needed for school and knowing that his only chance to be the first person in his family to go to university, the first to make a change in his destiny, is to adhere to the extreme codes of masculinity expounded by the toxic Stewards, led by the poisonously powerful Adam. This student freemasonery, feared by staff and students alike, can influence who receives the scholarship which will pay university fees.
Charlotte – at the other end of the social and financial spectrum to Drew – is also finding school punishingly difficult. A star student with a controlling mother who has relentlessly mapped out her life for her, she is also Adam’s ex-girlfriend. He has pursued her cruelly and continuously since she ended their relationship and is now blackmailing her by threatening to release a sex tape of the two of them together unless she agrees to resume their relationship.
Two very different students but under very similar pressures – forced into doing what parents and peers expect but which neither of them are sure they want. They have something else in common – a love of and talent for poetry, something Charlotte’s mother has expressly forbidden and which Drew keeps hidden for fear of ridicule. McMillan has their teacher, Don Antonio, introducing them to Lorca’s work as part of their course, for just as they are drowning under the weight of parental and class expectations, so he did, too. Through Lorca – and a school visit to Spain – Drew and Charlotte found the strength to speak out about what they really wanted in their lives and to let not only their poetry be heard but also their views about the injustices and divisions of class and gender within their educational situation. The book ends on a gentle note of hope with a tentative way forward for the two protagonists, individually and together.
It is refreshing to read literature for young people coming out of contemporary Northern Ireland – as the author points out, it is many years since Joan Lingard wrote the excellent Kevin and Sadie books and it is good to see that writers like McMillan are now continuing the canon.