“I shouldn’t have said it. I should have stayed calm and kept Jay’s secrets to myself like I’d promised…But I could feel it coming like a wave, as if I had no choice. ‘He’s recovering from a SHARK BITE. Before he came to Ireland, Jay Danagher was attacked by a shark.’”
Sharing other people’s confidences has got Jess into trouble before. There was the time she’d told Nick that Bonnie liked him when “as far as Bonnie was concerned, the whole thing was a deadly secret”. That one led to everyone falling out with her because, as Bonnie told her, “‘It’s about you and your blabbermouth’”. In a small town like Cloncannor on the West Coast of Ireland, as Jess tells us, she “was automatically banished by that whole crowd, and abandoned to the cheerless fate of solitude”.
Alternating chapters carry the titles Jess and Jay; the latter focus initially on the accident which sent Jay to hospital in South-East France where he lived with his father on the coast. Over several months, he recovers; but he will always carry a scar the length of the right side of his body, which he believes to be the consequence of an encounter with a Great White Shark as his father confirms. He senses his father has not told him the whole truth; somehow, Jay’s convinced his mother was involved, though she had left the family when he was only six months old. His father won’t talk about the incident and insists Jay must not mention it to anyone. Jay’s Dad is so keen to make a fresh start that, with little warning, he decamps with Jay to his native Ireland, leaving behind the childhood and friends Jay has enjoyed in France, and the beaches where he had discovered his passion and skills as a surfer.
It’s in Ireland that Jess meets Jay, finding in him a friend who can complement her acute emotional intelligence and her impulse to tell the truth as she sees it. Those alternating chapters differ from the familiar YA structure employing two protagonists as narrators. Jess tells her own story, but Jay’s experiences are described in the third person, enabling a reader to see Jay and other characters (especially his father and Jess) with a perspective free from Jay’s post-accident confusion. In Jess’s chapters, given our access to her thoughts and feelings, we may empathise strongly with her loneliness in the small community, her sense of being misunderstood and her response to Jay.
So, alongside the revelations about the accident, we’re caught up in the growing friendship between the two. Both are 13, both very self-aware; and in Jess’s case, unusually articulate for her age. Their mutual affection is rooted in an almost immediate recognition of the other’s less overt qualities, underpinned by their shared passion for surfing and the ocean itself – a shaping presence throughout the novel. Clues to the true nature of Jay’s accident may seem to be planted a little obviously to some readers; and if the melodrama surrounding the accident might stretch credulity, many adult readers would surely confirm that there are few limits to the nature of events that families sometimes choose to conceal. And here, readers may well be more absorbed by the subtly drawn relationship developing between Jess and Jay and the testing of trust within their families.