15 Days Without a Head was published in 2012 in the UK, and was just released in a new paperback edition in the US. It's a gritty novel set in an urban working class neighborhood, but with elements of the ridiculous lightening the tone. It is already (from the UK edition) showing up on some award longlists.
15-year-old Lawrence Roach lives in a cockroach infested apartment with his six-year-old half-brother, Jay, and their alcoholic mother. When their mother disappears, Lawrence fears that social services will get involved and separate him from Jay (as happened once previously). He goes to great lengths to conceal their situation from well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) adults. Meanwhile, he is on the phone every night participating in a quiz show, in an attempt to win a vacation for his family. And somehow, in the middle of all of his troubles, he meets a girl who just might be interested in him.
Lawrence and Jay's situation is pretty bleak - even when their mother is there she is unstable and borderline abusive, leaving Lawrence with most of the responsibility of caring for Jay. When she vanishes, the boys have scarcely any money for food. And when Jay gets sick, Lawrence is ill-equipped to handle the situation. Still, Cousins keeps the book from feeling bleak overall, by adding humor. The radio host of the quiz show is a bit of a buffoon. And Lawrence's attempts to dress up as his mother, in order to fool people into thinking she is still around, are both sad and comical.
One aspect of the book that I thought was a particularly brave choice on Cousins' part is that Lawrence himself isn't completely stable. He considers, for a moment, pushing a noxious neighbor down the stairs. He destroys the kitchen in a fit of anger that he doesn't even remember, scaring his brother. It's not clear whether there's an innate (and hereditary) mental problem, or whether the pressure of Lawrence's situation is destroying his ability to cope.
Lawrence is a strong protagonist because of his imperfections. He often doesn't know what to do. He makes mistakes. He feels despair. But he is deeply committed to his brother, and that keeps him on the right track. Jay is less developed as a character, but is pleasingly quirky. He think he's Scooby Doo, and insists that Lawrence's love interest, Mina, be called Velma. Mina is perhaps a tiny bit too good to be true, as she leaps in to help the brothers, but I liked her very much.
Here are a couple of quotes, to give you a sense of Cousins' writing:
"That sound is one of the few things that will penetrate the Cloud. The Cloud is what follows Happy Hour, and it lasts a lot longer. A force-field of cigarette smoke and booze, with our mum inside. It reminds me of that old TV program Stars in Their Eyes--when the contestant goes through the door as one person, then emerges from the smoke looking completely different. Except in Mum's case, she comes out looking exactly the same--it's her personality that's changed. I don't suppose that would make much of a TV show, though." (Page 6)
"...Much better that nobody notices me. I couldn't care less if I'm invisible to most of them. Invisibility is fine; it's the superpower I'd pick every time. Most people want strength, X-ray vision, or the ability to fly. Not me. Just to be able to fade away--how good would that be?" (Chapter 28)
Although the British details aren't overwhelming, there's definitely a UK feel to the book. The boys eat "chips" a lot (french fries). Their mother is "Mum". Money is in pounds. I don't think that anything will be difficult for US readers to understand, but it's enough to give the book a slightly exotic feel.
Teens who enjoy realistic fiction of the dysfunctional parent variety will not want to miss 15 Days Without a Head. The suspense over what happened to their mother, and what's going to happen to Lawrence and Jay, will keep readers of all stripes turning the pages. There is a relatively hopeful ending, which the kids bring about in large part through their own efforts, making this a book that librarians serving high schoolers will want to take a look at, too.
Publisher: Flux (@FluxBooks)
Publication Date: May 8, 2013 (US edition)
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
FTC Required Disclosure:
This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).