Alternating chapters recall a sun-soaked family holiday on Kyritos, an idyllic Greek island, shared by caring, witty parents, 15-year-old Shiv (Siobhan) and young Dec with his sparky humour – the kind rarely found outside YA novels. Nikos, a dangerously handsome 19-year-old Greek boatman, is in the offing – though he’s actually home from Uni for a few days, helping his Dad out. Shiv was sure this would be the best holiday yet; but the chapters in between, set a year on from that summer, reveal that this family is broken. We don’t yet know the circumstances, but we infer that Dec has drowned; Shiv is destroyed – it’s all her fault. So here she is in the present, with her Dad dropping her off to begin two months of treatment at the Korsakoff Clinic; and alongside her, readers are beginning 300+ pages of ominous tension, for those sunlit days on Kyritos are now undercut by a sense of imminent tragedy. The half dozen young ‘residents’ sharing her course at the Korsakoff are all bereaved, unable to move on beyond those deaths. The clinic’s methods are extreme, with no expense spared; from the outset of the course, the residents’ nights are repeatedly disturbed by images of the dead flashed on their bedroom walls. No conventional therapy or medication here; the Director concludes her Welcome Session by dumping each resident’s previous case notes in the rubbish bin.
Protagonists at one end of the spectrum of current YA novels are immersed in the bleakest of human experience – acute loneliness, unwanted pregnancy, addiction, OCD, life-threatening illness or, as in Shiv’s case, a slough of guilt. Such narratives can easily descend into gratuitous pain, but Martyn Bedford writes far too well for that. The counterbalancing chapters will hold readers in a tightening vice. Although they might guess the outcome in terms of events, complex characterisation, implicit with compassion, makes it uncertain whether the family will emerge from such an experience with any kind of healing in place. The compassion implicit in the narrative may well prompt readers to care not only for Shiv and her parents, but for a couple of the other residents too.
One regret. Readers must believe in the processes of the Korsakoff Clinic, whose manipulations have an Orwellian feel; everything else in the novel is convincingly realistic. I have no idea whether such drastic and costly treatments exist or how plausible they might seem to an expert; and neither will readers have any way of trusting their feasibility. It’s difficult to know what more could have been provided within the text; for once, perhaps, an Afterword might have offered answers to the questions which this fine and serious novel will surely provoke.