‘Is loving someone too big a risk?’ wonders 13-year-old Claire. ‘Is it better to seal yourself up, to not let love in or out?’ The questions are too late for her, since they are prompted by her much-loved Uncle Charlie’s condition, on the edge of death in hospital, victim of his passion for motorbikes. Such issues in many YA novels would be explored through cliché and schmaltz. Not so here.
Only Ever Always will make considerable but satisfying demands on its readers: they might enjoy a couple of readings, since this brief but complex narrative plays between two worlds, each with echoes of the other. In one, Claire is overwhelmed by the death of her uncle and the need to comfort his pregnant fiancée. So consuming is her grief that Claire cannot leave the solitude of her bedroom. Here, she dreams. Deliberately, she returns again and again to a dreamland where her loss is painfully worked out through the harsh experiences of ‘Clara’ in a dystopian wreck of a city, created through language and grammar as much as physical description. The narrative viewpoint shifts, the dramatic present voice is differently employed in the two worlds. Where Clare is supported by loving parents, is well-educated and verbally agile, her dreamland self Clara is orphaned and vulnerable, not least because she is barely literate, easily exploited by power-hungry adults. Objects and characters recur in the two worlds – recognisable but significantly changed. A cherished music box is perfect in one world, shattered in the next. A mysterious dog befriends Claire but appears only at crucial moments to rescue Clara from danger. Claire’s middle-class home is the ruined squat where Clara scrapes by, every moment charged with a violent, often sexual and even cannibalistic edge; the streets teem with packs of slashing-fanged dogs and nameless, greasy, sickly predators. So real is this world that we may well become unsure who is the dreamer and who the dreamed.
My own second reading allowed recognitions which I missed first time around – and around seems right, since there are repeated almost-circularities in the experiences of Claire/Clara, connections not quite completed, leaving the character and the reader with new understandings. In her/our world, Claire finds a way forward (‘comes to terms’ would be far too glib). True to the exploratory nature of this book, we end not in Claire’s ‘real world’ but in the dreamland of Clara with her friend Groom. We began with the two of them wondering whether to cross a river separating the ruined city from an unknown territory. Then, Clara was not ready to take the risk. She did not trust Groom: was he a grooming sexual threat, or was he a trustworthy companion, a kind of bridegroom? Maybe Groom himself has still to learn which he is. Now, as the novel comes almost full circle, they stand hand in hand, once more by the river’s edge. Clara has become the stronger of the two. On the other side, she is sure, they will escape the menace of the city and together find, ‘You and me’.