Reviewed March 11, 2010.
Chicken House (Scholastic), 2010. 325 pages.
For as long as she can remember, when Jem looks into another person's eyes, she sees a number. A person's number never changes.
Jem learned what the numbers meant on the day her mother died of a drug overdose. They are the date of that person's death.
Naturally, Jem doesn't like to look people in the eye. She's been in and out of foster homes and she doesn't have any friends.
Jem introduces herself like this:
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.
Most hang about in small groups, twos or threes, whiling away the hours. Me, I like to be on my own. I like to find the places where nobody is -- where I don't have to look at anyone, where I don't have to see their numbers.
Then Jem meets another troublemaking outcast called Spider. She doesn't mean to make friends with him. He smells rank and he never stops moving. Worst, his number is only a few months away.
But somehow they start hanging out together and become friends. Though they seem to get into yet more trouble together, and Jem's foster mother isn't happy about it.
Then they go into London and Jem sees several people at the London Eye whose number is that very day. Spider's been making a scene, but Jem pulls him away and tells him they have to get away immediately.
So when the disaster strikes and people die, naturally the police start looking for the two teenagers who were seen running away from the scene. Jem and Spider don't show a lot of judgment, and they steal a car and set out on the run. Meanwhile, Spider's time is running out.
This is a dark book, because Jem and Spider don't live nice easy lives, and they don't show good judgment. (And don't worry, parents, I think any teen reading this book would realize that they are not showing good judgment.) But their characters seem very real, and we completely believe and understand why they would do the things they do.
Ultimately, I came away from the book uplifted, feeling better for having known Jem and Spider.
I like the way this book shows love between two very flawed but lovable human beings. Spider stinks, and Jem won't let anyone get near her. No sparkles here! But the love that grows between them seems all the deeper for the flaws.
Of course, the whole premise is a lot of fun. What would you do if you knew the date when each person you met was going to die? Before I read the book, I thought I'd classify it as science fiction. But Jem's ability is the only thing that makes their world different from ours -- and it's seen as just a fluke psychic ability, not based on science or magic. So I'm going to categorize this book as "Contemporary." It's got some ordinary disadvantaged kids in an unusual, but tough situation.
And there's a great kicker of an ending!