Rachel Ward's Numbers is a young adult novel originally published in the UK, due out in the US next month. I found the premise irresistible. Fifteen-year-old Jem has spent the past 8 years in the London foster care system, after her mother died of a drug overdose. She's spent those years trying to maintain a distance from other people, because of a "gift" that feels more like a curse. You see, whenever Jem makes eye contact with someone, she sees that person's number - the date that he or she is going to die. As you might imagine, knowing when the people around you are going to die is not a recipe for close relationships.
Jem is a girl on the fringes. She's in a special class for troubled kids. She has difficulty reading. She skips school in a regular basis. She doesn't have any friends. Her life changes, however, when she becomes, reluctantly, friends with a gangly, jittery classmate named Spider. When Jem's gift gets them into trouble with the law, she and Spider find themselves on the run. Their journey is set against a ticking clock, because Spider's number is just about up.
Numbers is pretty bleak. Jem and Spider have very low expectations of their lives. But both characters are real and complex. And their slowly developing relationship feels real, too. These aren't your standard white, middle class protagonists. Jem is white, Spider is black (though his grandmother is white), and they both have attention and behavioral problems, as well as financial limitations. Here's the opening of the book (from Jem's perspective):
"There are places where kids like me go. Sad kids, bad kids, bored kids, and lonely kids, kids that are different. Any day of the week, if you know where to look, you'll find us: behind the shops, in back lanes, under bridges by canals and rivers, 'round garages, in sheds, on vacant lots. There are thousands of us. If you choose to find us, that is -- most people don't. If they do see us, they look away, pretend we're not there. It's easier that way. Don't believe all that crap about giving everyone a chance -- when they see us, they're glad we're not in school with their kids, disrupting their lessons, making their lives a misery. The teachers, too. Do you think they're disappointed when we don't turn up for registration? Give me a break. They're laughing -- they don't want kids like us in their classrooms, and we don't want to be there." (Page 1, ARC)
Cynical? Yes. But Jem is insightful, too. For example:
"Spider sometimes went 'round with a gang of lads from school instead. From what I could tell, he'd run with them until they had a row, or even a fight, then he'd keep clear for a bit. There's always something going on with boys. It's like animals, isn't it, monkeys or lions, sorting out the pecking order, who's the boss? (Page 17, ARC)
Numbers reminded me a little bit of one of my favorite books from childhood, Flight of the Doves by Walter Macken (in which two orphaned siblings run away from an abusive stepfather, in search of their grandmother in Ireland). City kids on the run, in unfamiliar countryside, seeking a safe haven, and trying to look out for one another along the way. Although Jem's gift is certainly integral to the plot, Numbers is much more a book about characters in difficult situations than a tale of some gimmicky psychic ability.
I found Numbers a compelling read. I read it mostly in one sitting. The time pressure (with Spider's number coming up) kept me turning the pages, but the ethical issues made me stop and think, (if you know when someone else is going to die, should you tell them?). There's a great twist at the end, too, which in turn made me think back to the beginning of the book. Jem and Spider are characters that will stay with me for a long time. Highly recommended for teen and adult readers, male and female.
Publisher: The Chicken House (Scholastic)
Publication Date: February 1, 2010 (US). Originally published January 5, 2009 in the UK
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: The Book...Spot, Under a Blood Red Sky, The Book Bug, Eclectic Reader
© 2010 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and may result in my receiving a small commission on purchases (with no additional cost to you).