Sarah Rees Brennan
Simon and Schuster 2012
Sorry-In-The-Vale is full of secrets. The locals know it and Kami Glass is certain of it. What’s more, she’s determined to root them out. Set to study journalism, Kami’s getting a head start by investigating Aurimere, the mysterious house set on a mysterious hill above her mysterious little town. Deserted until recently, Aurimere has been re-inhabited by the Lynburn family. The Lynburns have a strange and, yes, mysterious past that links them irrevocably to Sorry-In-The-Vale. Or at least Kami is pretty sure that they do, she just can’t get anyone to tell her exactly what it is so when the first of two Lynburn boys shows up at school, Kami is determined to find out his story. Aided by her rather less enthusiastic team of, er, reporters Kami, Ash and Jared – her imaginary friend (yes, really) start their investigation. All is disrupted, though, by the appearance of a second Lynburn boy. A darker, more broken and scarily more familiar presence who is set to change Kami’s life for good.
Kami epitomises the term intrepid reporter. Dogged, charming and a little bit ruthless, once she gets her teeth into a story there is no letting go. It is entirely possible to imagine her in pencil skirt, patent heels and pillbox hat running around taking notes in some 1940’s movie. It’s equally possible to imagine her as Nancy Drew. Albeit a Nancy Drew who speaks to the voice in her head and deals with being recognisably different in a small and somewhat closeted town. She’s lovable and funny, although her constant wise-cracking does mean that it takes a while to get to know her. Where readers see past the jokes, however, is inside her head. Her aforementioned imaginary friend has access to all her innermost thoughts and emotions and so, therefore, have we. When that imaginary friend turns out to be perhaps not so imaginary, Kami is laid completely bare and that is interesting to see.
Kami’s best friend Angela is a harder nut to crack. In fact, she’s initially pretty unlikable. Known for her outstanding beauty, Angela rejects pretty much anyone other than her brother, Rusty, and Kami out of hand. And she’s not very nice about it. However, her character development is interesting and as the story progresses her fierce loyalty to Kami shines through her rather abrasive personality. Also, who doesn’t love a person who loves to nap. The Lynburn boys themselves (not to mention the rest of the rather terrifying Lynburn family) are a bit of a mix. Mild mannered, polite Ash at first seems your standard cut-out-and-keep male character, charmingly attracted to Kami while clearly filled with dark secrets and strange longing. So far, so YA and to be honest, that’s pretty much where he remains. Luckily, his rather bland characterisation is balanced by the fascinating Jared. In fact, Jared is the triumph of the book. He is an entirely contradictory character to the point where he is never less than completely unsettling. Honestly, it’s hard to describe his mercurial nature and Rees Brennan doesn’t, at any point, resolve this issue – a rather bold and ultimately very successful move.
While Unspoken is an enjoyable read it is not without flaws. The first half of the book is rather slow moving, which shouldn’t be a problem in a mystery novel (particularly not one based so strongly on the Gothic tradition) yet in this case it leaves fifty percent of the book largely without substance. While the plot moves along, it gets rather lost in snarky dialogue and quirky sentence structure, both detracting from what should be a creeping unease regarding Aurimere and its inhabitants. A large part of the problem is the initial lack of differentiation in the character’s respective voices. Linguistically, they all sound an awful lot like Sarah Rees Brennan. She’s a funny lady and a skilled writer but there are sections at the beginning of the book where you could give any line to any character and struggle to tell the difference between the lot of them. Luckily, she moves away from this style in the latter half of Unspoken and the book really takes off from that point.
Despite this, there is much to praise and Rees Brennan is particularly successful in her riffs on the themes of loneliness, privacy and trust. The relationship between Kami and Jared is entirely unique and completely compelling. Again and again we are asked to consider if, perhaps (and unlike so many YA premises out there) it would really be so fantastic to have an attractive companion who could read your mind. At no point do the interactions between Kami and Jared become predictable and the ending – the ENDING! – is harsh, surprising and desperately hard to read. It is this relationship, this story that lifts Unspoken, despite its flaws, from a fun read to one that inspires a little introspection on the part of the reader. Certainly, it should lead readers to pick up book two which, hopefully, will imbue its characters with individual voices and investigate further the secrets of the Lynburns and the terrifying Jared.
This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Splendibird has used the American cover of the book to illustrate this post. This is because a) it's very pretty and b) the UK cover not only makes her want to vomit but is also entirely misleading GRRRRR. Unspoken is available now.