Nicola Morgan’s novel Wasted made me think of Scandinavian writer Tove Jansson’s thoughts on what makes a successful book for young readers: ‘Every children’s book should have a path in it where the writer stops and the child goes on.’ In Wasted, Morgan creates sympathetic, intelligent characters you really care about and when the book ends, you can hardly bear to leave their stories behind.
The story has two main characters, neither of whom has had an easy childhood: Jess has a mother who turns to the bottle when she finds it hard to cope with life and Jack has had two mothers who have died, about which he feels vaguely responsible. The pair meet by chance: Jack is playing in the school band and is in want of a singer; Jess leaves the door of the school practice room open and in a lucky moment he hears her beautiful voice. What develops is a love story that is charming and real.
The issue of whether our lives turn out the way they do because of luck, fate or choice is at the centre of this story. Jack believes in luck. In fact he lives his life by it and increasingly he chooses to let the toss of a coin make important decisions for him. And the narrative voice in the story continually invites the reader to get involved in this ‘heads or tails’ approach to life and teases us with the different possibilities that can arise if we leave things to chance.
But isn’t it the writer’s responsibility to construct a story for the reader, to tell us ‘what happens’? So I felt for several pages. I found it unsettling to be asked to take an active role in determining their fate. But the confidence of Morgan’s writing and the power of her characters kept me going. Towards the end, there were times when I found it both hard to put down and impossible to finish and I had to stop for a while before I could face the ending.
In a final twist of the tale which readers will find either intriguing or infuriating (or possibly both) the reader is instructed to play ‘Jack’s game’ – to toss a coin and depending where it lands, to read only one of the two possible endings. Will readers actually do this? Not this one. I couldn’t leave one of the two possibilities unknown, I needed to know what the writer had imagined for Jess and Jack, to know whether they faced tragedy or the possibility of a more conventional happy ending. Strangely, both endings were satisfying and hopeful and neither of them will disappoint. This story, which is not at all about things being wasted, will give readers of all ages a lot to think about. Highly recommended.