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Reviews

Dead Jealous

Vaughan S. Roberts

Sharon Jones

Orchard Books
320pp

Young adult fiction can be a difficult genre to define, especially as it is thought that 55 per cent of this market is bought by people over 18. If we take a broad view of the category then the most well-known titles will include Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games - all of which have become deeply embedded in popular culture. One of the striking aspects of those series is that their sense of narrative enchantment arises from an escape into a 'magical' world and, while those worlds are different to ours, we instantly recognise their characters and characteristics.

Sharon Jones was a finalist in the 2012 Undiscovered Voices competition and has created a young adult fiction series about Poppy Sinclair a 16-year-old atheist with a dog called 'Dawkins'. Instead of escaping into an enchanted world, Jones locates her central character firmly within the realities of 21st century society. In the first volume, Dead Jealous, Poppy falls into investigating a murder at a pagan festival which she's reluctantly attending for her mum and stepdad's handfasting ceremony. There is some clever subversion of popular tropes here - the festival setting is enchanted while Poppy, with her 'God is Dead' t-shirt, is unflinchingly pragmatic and one of the few people immersed in an adult world of mystical idealism who maintains a healthy scepticism.

At one point, as the festival is finishing, the illusion is stripped away and the place of enchantment is revealed in all its mundane ordinariness: 'The market stalls were nearly empty, everything sold or packed up. The tarpaulin roofs sagged with rainwater and filled black bin bags lay in piles. A sharp-toothed creature had mauled one of them, and the contents had spilled out over the sodden grass. Without fairy lights and the bustle of people, the stalls looked like nothing but piles of rusting bones. The magic was gone'. To this reader at least, that is an image which all people of faith have to come to terms with - whether it is after a candle-lit carol service at Christmas (with its own 'fairy lights') or following on from being in a room full of people sharing a moment of intense communion with each other. At some point the magic is concluded and the banal reality of our commonplace world or even the hard reality of painful existence will be restored.

So if we cannot escape through the wardrobe into a fantasy world and we are surrounded by everyday routine, is there anything to help us in the down-to-earth world of Poppy Sinclair? Two valuable things strike me - integrity and prayer. In the same way that Philip Pullman provides his characters with daemons to give their inner lives a physical manifestation, so Poppy's own integrity almost has a physical presence in this book and we are able to listen into some of her internal dialogue. Her integrity is what makes Poppy: 'Poppy'. Second, in extremis when her life is threatened and she's faced with her own imminent demise she prays: 'For the first time in a long time, she squeezed her eyes shut and prayed. She wasn't sure to whom or to what, but faced with the prospect of dying again she was willing to give anything a go'.

Is Poppy's prayer answered? And if so, by whom? Did it need to be answered? And what's its meaning? The outcome of this moment is ambiguous but its significance extends beyond the instinctive act of praying. When our lives are pushed to the edge in the world of the 21st century and there are no other options, even a thorough-going sceptic may turn to prayer. This story creates a fictional landscape that oscillates between enchantment and scepticism, and the character of Poppy highlights two potential bridges between the two - a commitment to one's integrity and an openness (when the chips are down) to prayer. Of course there are many other possible links as well and this book shows that there is a fascinating narrative field to be explored here. As the world of faith, religion and spirituality changes and mutates in contemporary society, we have an author who is willing to explore that in an imaginative and engaging way.

Jones' book works on many levels - as young adult fiction, a whodunit that adults can enjoy, and a social commentary on the state of faith in contemporary Britain. In a delightful plot twist, we are told that her birth-father has a new mistress and towards the end we discover the identity of that mistress: it's the Church, as he is training to be a vicar. Speaking personally, I'm very much looking forward to the next volume in what has the makings of a well-crafted and well-written series.