This debut Young Adult novel deserves the hype and praise it’s been receiving. It was a book I found myself looking forward to getting back to whenever real life got in the way of reading and which I finished with the same sense of satisfaction that comes from finishing a good meal.
The premise is that bright, independent, highly organised Pippa, in her final year at school and planning to go on to Cambridge, uses her EPQ project to investigate the alleged murder and suicide, five years earlier, of two kids from her school. She tells her teachers that she wants to explore the impact of social media on how the deaths were understood and how that affected the investigation. Her real motivation is that she doesn’t accept that the boy accused of murder was guilty.. So, Pippa uses her summer vacation to investigate the five-year-old crime.
What follows is an engrossing mystery that kept me guessing and hungry for answers right up to the end, which also managed to do interesting non-pretentious things with form and has a main character who is easy to believe in.
The plot is twisty. The suspect pool is diverse. The method of investigation is quirky but believable. I thought the idea of presenting the investigation using the project log format required by the EPQ worked very well. As well as providing a clear structure, it displayed the way in which Pippa’s logical mind, well-suited to this dispassionate reporting, kept bouncing off her passion to find out what really happened, resulting in some innovative and often risky courses of action.
I found it refreshing to read a story set in a realistic version of a modern English school. Although the story is Young Adult and therefore avoids the direct depiction of some of the action, the story still covers various kinds of abuse, assault, drug abuse and bullying without pulling any punches and without falling into moral outrage. I admired that way in which Pippa navigates through these things without getting distracted and mostly keeping her anger under control.
Pippa is one of the main strengths of the books. She’s real and engaging. She’s bright, methodical and persistent and often brave. She’s also vulnerable, often scared and when things go wrong sometimes becomes so distraught that she can’t function. When she’s at home, playing with her little brother, having dinner with her family or dancing with her dog, she’s still very much a young girl. When she’s facing down a drug dealer you can see the woman she will become. When she’s with her friends you can see where her strength comes from.
Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Pippa is her unwillingness to settle for easy labels. She wants to scrape those off and see what lies beneath. In the early chapters, we’re given an insight into how Pippa thinks and how her background has affected that thinking when Pippa reflects on people’s puzzled reaction to her pale white skin when they see her dark-skinned father and little brother.
“The giant Nigerian man was quite evidently her stepfather and Joshua her half-brother. But Pip didn’t like using those words, those cold technicalities. The people you love weren’t algebra: to be calculated, subtracted, or held at arm’s length across a decimal point. Victor and Josh weren’t just three-eighths hers, not just forty per cent family, they were fully hers.”
My only criticism of the book is the final chapter. It’s one of those “Three Month’s Later” things. It’s well-written but, to me, it seemed too neat and too preachy. The rest of the book convinced me, even when it surprised me, but this seemed too simple.
I highly recommend this book. I hope Holly Jackson goes on to produce more work like this.