Sunday, December 04, 2016

Hello Darkness

Hello Darkness
Written by: Anthony McGowan
Publisher: Walker Books
Ages: Young Adult

Anthony McGowan is the master of the unexpected  in YA fiction – his books are dark and disturbing, his protagonists often  unreliable, his plot arcs always surprising.   Hello Darkness  ticks every one of those boxes. It is also one of the few YA books in recent times to  talk  about mental health, as it looks at one troubled week in the life of a child struggling with a deteriorating grasp on reality.

In the Universe according to McGowan, high school is a nightmarish gulag, teeming with gangs and pubescent overlords fighting for control, autocratic teachers – there is even a Chinatown.  Out on the fringes of this underworld is Johnny Middleton, our protagonist and narrator who, in his own words, ‘has problems’. We are fleetingly told  that he has had some sort of nervous breakdown in school  a while ago, may have been institutionalised and needs to take medication of some kind on  a regular basis. Johnny is a social outcast, steering clear of the politics, cliques and daily intrigue of school. But then someone starts slaughtering the school pets and Johnny finds himself being blamed.  It doesn’t help that his parents have chosen that week to leave him on his own, expecting him to take his medication and stay out of trouble. But Johnny is fourteen – it is a given that he will do neither.

Fighting to prove his innocence before he is expelled, Johnny  finds himself caught in the war between the Deputy Head of the school and his henchmen ‘prefects’, and rival gangs, the Drama Queens and the Lardies.  As reality and fantasy converge in his tortured mind, Johnny struggles to join the dots between clues, find allies, prove his innocence and, most of all, stay sane.

Hello Darkness reads like a Noir novel from the ‘50s – you are never quite sure how much of it is real, and how much of it the product of our increasingly unreliable narrator's feverish imagination. Yet, even as we worry for  his crumbling hold on sanity,  Johnny makes for a believable, and likeable, Marlowe. His wry humour and incisive eye  reveal  an intelligence far beyond his years;  his deft negotiation of the shifting alliances  of the shadow world that is his school suggest a maturity that no one else seems to have noticed.  And most of all, you notice his compassion - for animals, for the talking cat that may or may not be real, for his baby sister.

Don't expect a satisfying ending - McGowan leaves you with just a hint of a happy ending, but no real clue as to what will happen to Johnny.  What he does give you, however, is a powerful examination of living with mental illness. 

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