Sunday, 1 September 2013

Unraveling by Elizabeth Norris

Publication date:  12th April 2012

Published by: Balzar + Bray

Genre: Romance/Science Fiction (YA)

This is the first of two science fiction novels set in present day.  As such it reads like a cross-over of genres, i.e. contemporary romance meets sci-fi.  Set in Los Angeles, the main character is Janelle Tanner, a 17 year old girl who becomes the victim of a tragic accident - she is hit by a speeding truck and the impact is fatal.  She experiences death but, several seconds later, she is brought back to life, roused by the voice of a boy who is saying her name and reassuring her that she will be okay.  She does not know how it is possible but she is convinced that she died and was brought back, and that the boy, Ben Micheals, is responsible…

As well as a central plot, Unraveling has a number of sub-plots that run alongside, interweaving and connecting with the main one.  There is a lot going on and there are many characters involved.  Its complexity is one of its strengths since it is full of intrigue and never boring.  I really like Elizabeth Norris’ prose.  The depth appeals to me and I think she is skilled at characterisation.  She homes in on human relationships (family, friends, lovers etc.), exploring human behaviour and emotions.  Janelle is not afraid to talk about her feelings, giving us insight into her character – which felt very real to me.  For example, Janelle experiences a life-changing traumatic event which isn’t glossed over or ignored as the story develops.  Instead, the effect it has on her is constantly there in the background, resurfacing and retreating throughout the story – in the way one would expect in such circumstances.

Norris shows that the development of the relationship between Janelle and Ben is gradual and I found it believable.  It is the complete opposite to what many like to term ‘instalove’ (often used by readers who are not convinced by premature romance).  It is clear that Ben’s affection for Janelle had been going on long before she even noticed him.  He has always been around, albeit in the background, but she never paid much attention to him, dismissing him as a time-wasting ‘stoner’.  What does a guy have to do to get noticed?  Bring the girl back to life.  The exchanges between the two of them are sweet but not OTT, e.g. the classroom debate scene is nicely done.

Admittedly, willing suspension of disbelief is required in order to go along with the central plot.  You will need to overlook the amount of info sensitive to national security that Janelle’s dad is happy to share with her and how a bunch of teenagers’ are able to do a better job at federal bureau investigation than the professionals.

Unraveling is not without clichés of the kind found in young-adult fiction.  The most annoying being Ben and Janelle spending the night together in the same bed; sleeping together in the literal sense, like an old co-habiting couple.  I don't see the necessity. Why can’t boyfriend sleep in his own bed? How many teenage couples actually do that?  My guess is not so many it warrants the level of occurrence in YA novels. 

Caution, potential spoiler alert:  I do think Norris went a bit OTT with tragedy and melancholia, especially towards the end.  This is not a dystopian story but it starts to read like one. She laid it on a bit too thick and the result for me was failure to evoke the kind of emotion I suspect was intended.  (Perhaps because I felt like my emotions were being manipulated.)  Without wishing to give too much away, there is a scene towards the end that is similar to another I have read (the Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman), only that book left me in tears, broken-hearted and somewhat traumatised for days, whereas with this one I was unmoved.

That said I really enjoyed this book and l will read the sequel. I think it is definitely one of the better YA fiction novels I have read.  If like me you enjoy contemporary romance and sci-fi, I would strongly recommend it.

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