Ever since Mae was seven years old, she’s known that an asteroid (a.k.a. ‘Selena’ or 8050XF11) was on course to collide with Earth. Attempts to avert catastrophe, led by NASA’s finest, have failed. Now Mae is seventeen, there are 30 days to go, and one last effort is planned to escape mass destruction and death. Her life has been scarred by tragedy. Both parents were killed in a car crash, her mother pregnant with a child who had to be cut from her body. Mae’s driving force is her love for her younger sister, blind from that premature birth. Stella is articulate, funny and perceptive to an extraordinary degree.
Counting down to the apocalypse, laws, conventions and morality itself become irrelevant. Yet buses still run, churches draw increasing congregations, shops and schools still open. Teachers teach and students attend classes though Authority is challenged more and more openly. Order on the streets of West-on-Sea is upheld by a young policeman in the temporary absence of his father, the town’s senior officer.
In the early chapters, we meet more than a dozen sixth formers from Sacred Heart. At this stage, most are characterised by one or two broad brush strokes. One boy sings with haunting beauty; the arrogant daughter of the Headmaster leads the in-crowd; her boyfriend is a sportsman, much fancied by many of the girls; another girl practises the piano for hours on end – she’s recently taken to prodigious over-eating; while this quiet boy is modest and kind to the point of invisibility. Three characters are drawn very differently; Mae herself, her amusing friend Felix, and a newcomer to the town, Jack Sail. Whitaker gives all of them depth and complexity. By contrast, the parents of these sixth formers, especially the fathers, are stereotypes: authoritarian, often abusive and even predatory. They neither respect nor listen to their children. They live lies.
In the early stages, readers might well be confused since so much is carried by dialogue which is often cryptic, charged with intensity but not always ascribed to its speaker. Even on a second reading, it proved useful to keep track by charting names, characteristics and relationships. When she was fifteen, Mae chose to call herself a ‘Forever’. In this, she was joined by her then best friend, Abi. They accept themselves for who they are: one is content to see herself as a ‘creep’ and the other a ‘weirdo’. Mae determines to see Selena as an opportunity, not a curse. She’ll say: ‘I am. Not I might be. Not I could be.’ To be true to herself, not to the expectations of others. The two stick to their word and others join them increasingly as time goes by. It is Abi’s broken body that Mae finds on the seashore in the first sentence of the first chapter. Did Abi jump or was she pushed? That question drives through the entire narrative.
There’s a change of pace in the latter two thirds of the novel. Events follow one another rapidly, triggering revelations and new mysteries (Whitaker handles this admirably – he is an award-winning crime writer for adults). Mae is well-placed to solve some of those mysteries since her disregard for convention allows her to enter the homes of wealthy people after dark, sometimes taking valuables she decides the owners no longer need, pawning them to fund her sister’s care. During one of her nocturnal visits, she discovers that the town’s young policeman is hiding the sickly-smelling, decaying corpse of his father in his home.
No more spoilers here. If the early stages of the book at times seem opaque, the later chapters have all the tension of a thriller. If the secrets finally revealed about those sixth formers are possibly too numerous, the interplay between Mae, Felix and Sail is poignantly described as they realise that what might have been can surely never be.