Amelie, Curtis’s first-person narrator, is aged 13. To say she is dedicated to the art of baking would be an understatement: she spends every hour she can baking, and works in a food shop where (at her own choice) she is paid in ingredients rather than in cash. A TV programme entitled Britain’s Best Teen Baker of the Year is a junior version of the Great British Bake-Off. Amelie has reached the quarter-final stage.
A brilliant feature of Curtis’s narrative is that Amelie’s recipes are included at various points in the story. Parents may be impressed when young readers express a new-found interest in working in the kitchen.
Not until the end of the third chapter does the reader learn, more or less incidentally, that Amelie has cystic fibrosis. The reader also gradually learns that Amelie’s health is declining, so much so that her mother feels she is not well enough to undertake the journey to London for the filming of the TV show. Curtis makes the mother’s viewpoint look reasonable (at least to an adult reader) by the meticulous depiction of Amelie’s medical needs. A young reader might urge Amelie to go for it anyway.
Amelie has a boyfriend at school. His name is Harry. She has known him since she was five. Harry encourages Amelie to try things which her mother would regard as too risky. He also loves the treats that Amelie bakes for him.
Amelie now faces a tricky choice. If she is to take part in the competition she will have to defy her mother and travel unauthorised to London. She daren’t ask Harry for his help. If she goes to London, how will she cope? What if it all goes wrong? From this point Curtis’s narrative unfolds with powerful inevitability and chilling consequences.
There is a paradox that surrounds everyone with a serious impairment, whether in fiction or in daily life. The impairment never goes away. It exerts a powerful influence every minute of every day. Yet the impaired person must cultivate other attributes that make it possible to lead a worthwhile life. This must be true of characters in fiction if they are to be multi-dimensional and credible. Curtis uses an authentic narrative voice and convincing medical details to create the context in which Amelie is as real and believable a character as any this reviewer has encountered in recent fiction. It is a triumph of creativity.
There is just one moment when Curtis’s skill deserts her. Amelie describes herself (page 30) as ‘suffering from’ cystic fibrosis. Such formulations project people with impairments into the status of victims. Someone as insightful as Amelie would know this and would avoid the term.