I must confess I am not a connoisseur of ‘Young Adult’ (YA) novels. I was a student when everyone was reading Tolkien and Mervyn Peake, so they didn’t appeal, but at the time there was in any case no question of their being aimed at teenagers. They were books for adults – hip, trendy adults, the same ones who liked Monty Python. YA as a genre had yet to be invented. It still lay in the future when my son was born a decade later. And, although eventually I read to him ‘The Hobbit’ and the Narnia novels, they were not billed as belonging to the YA genre. As a bookseller, I was responsible for cataloguing fiction and the genre in which we placed them was firmly labelled ‘fantasy’. Fantasy was science fiction without the science. C.S. Lewis was considered ‘a good thing’ by the librarians who were my main customers because his novels were allegories of the Christian condition, but they bought the Narnia books for the under-twelves, not for adolescents. I’ve read Steinbeck, of course (but long before some of his works were hi-jacked from mainstream adult and appropriated as YA), and I’ve read and enjoyed some of Philip Pullman’s and Jacqueline Wilson’s books, but there my acquaintance with YA ends.
Or, ‘had ended’. This summer, I read a book called ‘Love is the answer’ which took my breath away. Its publisher, QuoScript, classifies it as YA and, although I would agree that this is the primary genre to which it belongs, I’d also say it is a ‘crossover’ book, i.e., one that holds appeal for all readers from the age of twelve onwards.
‘Love is the answer’ is the debut novel of Ben Craib. It’s about loss, grieving, going off the rails and, above all, the value of love in all its true forms – love of parents, love of friends, legitimate love of self. It distinguishes between these ‘pure’ forms of love and the false and destructive love that springs from self-doubt, spiting former partners by shacking up with a ‘rebound’ lover and using an unsatisfactory relationship to bolster self-esteem. This makes the novel sound sombre and moralistic, but in fact it is the opposite – vibrant with some of the best dialogue I have ever read, extremely funny in a sitcom kind of way and lyrical without being precious.
‘Love is the answer’ tells the story of Scarlett, whose mother has died of cancer by the time the novel begins, though she appears in some flashbacks. Scarlett, who has clearly now arrived at the angry part of the grieving process, is reluctantly (and badly) keeping house for her father, who is himself floundering in grief. Although he clearly loves Scarlett, he shows it in all the wrong ways, coming across sometimes as heavily dictatorial as a Victorian papa, sometimes ridiculously over-indulgent (because he doesn’t want to lose his daughter) and always as out of his depth emotionally as Scarlett herself.
Other important characters include Elliot and Bad Ben, Scarlett’s two college friends, whom she all but abandons when she meets Hayden, her first proper boyfriend, and Jennifer, Scarlett’s father’s new girlfriend, a slim, elegant ballet teacher who seems to hold all the cards when Scarlett herself holds none. Scarlett resents Jennifer and rejects her genuine concern. She does not recognise the deep affection in which she is held by Elliot and Bad Ben. She fights against her father’s protectiveness and instead throws in her lot with Hayden, believing that she has not only found her soul-mate, but, through nurturing their relationship, the solution to all her predicaments.
That’s certainly enough of the plot, though I’ll just highlight a few of the other riches within this poised and light-of-touch but very accomplished novel. First of all, the characters: all the leading ones are complex and self-contradictory – at times, noble and brave; at times, absurd and cowardly. Ben Craib is a master of characterisation, a gift which he extends to the minor characters, too. My favourites among these are Cenk, the thuggish Cockney/Turkish owner of Scarlett’s local convenience store, and Mikey Miles, the ageing, pathetic – but extremely wealthy – pop star whom Scarlett and the other residents of Hayden’s squat treat as a sort of demi-god. And the sub-plots are fascinating: Ben Craib wears his knowledge lightly, but he is clearly expert on contemporary music and – more originally – superheroes, the comics in which they feature and the strange fantasy world which their fans inhabit. Ironies abound, some so subtle that it takes two or three readings to recognise the nuances in the masterfully constructed narrative. As I’ve said, Craib also has a natural ear for dialogue. I won’t elaborate further – I’ve said my piece. I do encourage you to read this book, whether you identify as a YA reader or one of more mature years, especially if, like me, you have always thought the YA genre is divided between ‘Frozen’-style fantasies and gritty, if hackneyed, works about modern teenage angst. ‘Love is the answer’ has so much more to offer than this, to readers of any age. It is the novel that has persuaded me never to pass by the YA sections in my local bookshop in future. There may well be other masterpieces hiding there! And I look forward with impatience to reading Ben Craib’s next book.