I’m of the generation who painstakingly recorded their favourite songs onto cassette tapes, and used them as love letters. For me, there’ll always be something romantic and hopeful about those little plastic oblongs and their spools of shiny black ribbon.
That’s something that teenage Ryan, growing up in the nineties and one of the two main characters in this book, would completely understand. For 21st-century Ameliah, the other central character, boom boxes and tape recordings are as antique as cherryade, Eric Cantona, or Pink Floyd. Camden weaves their stories together through tape: Ameliah, living with her grandmother and grieving for her parents, both of whom have died, finds a tape recording made by the young Ryan, a voice diary. He too has lost a parent, his
mother has died and his father has married someone else. Only as the book progresses do we learn how closely these two young people are connected.
Their two lives are beautifully described, Ryan’s in particular. As well as a step-mother, he has a new step-brother to cope with, the bullying Nathan. It would be hard to find two more different young men. Ryan is quiet, contemplative, Nathan loud and aggressive. In a brilliantly described, and surprisingly funny scene, the two are brought together when Ryan’s dad is forced to resort to his fists to help them out of a mess. Ryan’s best friend Liam is a terrific character. They’ve been friends since infant school and Ryan ‘couldn’t think of a single day since they’d known each other that Liam hadn’t made him laugh at least twice.’
Camden is a best known as a spoken-word artist, and in many ways, this story is a hymn to the voice. The crackly recordings, voices from the past, set the tone, but in other instances, Ryan falls in love with a girl simply because of her voice. He listens to his parents talking downstairs, the sound of their voices rising and falling like a melody, and thinks about the layers of words he’s recorded onto tapes as layers of paint.
This is a first novel, and the plot loses its way a little with the introduction of a sort of sub-plot, some of the descriptions don’t quite come off – Camden trying a bit too hard perhaps. Nonetheless, this is a touching and involving story, deftly told, and genuinely original. A very impressive debut.
Read a Q&A interview with Steven Camden here.