Jem and Kai have been friends forever. She adores him, loves him, would do anything for him and he for her. Well, anything except live. Kai is easygoing, kind, gorgeous and gay. When he is brutally out-ed online, he cannot see past the hell of homophobic abuse torrenting towards him and kills himself. Jem is left with nothing but tainted memories, existing in a grief-stricken stupor, fuelled only by plans for her own suicide – plans that she never quite has the energy to put into action. At her lowest ebb, she discovers that Kai has left her a series of and slowly, she starts to come back to life, taking Kai’s suggestions on board, feeling her way back into the real world. Yet what really fuels her revival is not the letters from Kai – they merely keep her going from month to month – but a deep-seated need for revenge, a desperation to find out who did this to Kai so that she can punish them. And when that’s done… well, for Jem, there’s not way through – only out.
Throughout her story, Jem’s voice remains remarkably clear, her personality crystallising even as she changes almost beyond recognition. Cleverly, while we are introduced to Jem during the darkest period of her life, we get to know her through her memories of Kai and also through his perception of her (as seen through the letters that pepper the book). She’s very sharp, pretty cynical and very funny. Her keen observations of those around her, particularly the popular kids at school who she rather viciously (yet awfully cleverly) categorises as members of the animal kingdom, are fascinating. She’s also not terribly nice, with a tendency to see others only in black and white with a subtle sense that she and Kai were superior to everyone else. In short, she’s an incredibly believable teenager – likeable and unlikable, smart yet short-sighted, loving yet desperately selfish and awfully fatalistic when it suits her. She’s a tour de force of insightful writing and grievously insurmountable grief.
Kai himself comes into focus slowly, with Jem a devoted yet slightly unreliable narrator of his life. It is in the slow drip of his missives to Jem that he finally emerges. While his tone is light, seemingly inappropriate at times, he comes to light as a good person, backed into a hellish corner from which he truly sees no way out. He is heartbreaking to say the least. As with Cat Clarke’s previous work, the larger cast of characters are written with great skill. The concern of Jem’s parents is palpable; Louise, Kai’s sister, hisses with bitterness; the popular kids become both more and less than they first appear. Of that group, Sacha, Lucas and Stu are particularly fascinating, all having paradoxical affects on protagonist, Jem. It’s very clever, very subtle and very real.
The storyline itself could at first seem a little trite, with Kai’s monthly letters seemingly the beginning of a story last seen in the ghastly P.S. I Love You. Don’t be fooled. Clarke takes a recognisable trope and turns it on its head. Even as Jem appears to take on board the message that Kai so needs her to understand, she twists his advice to her own bitter means. Perception of others, and of events, is a running theme in Clarke’s work and Undone riffs on ideas that she has touched on with great success before but to even greater effect. Jem’s inability to see the woods for the trees leads to a reveal that is subtly signposted from page one, allowing readers to understand what she herself refuses to acknowledge, preferring instead to doggedly pursue an avenue informed by her own prior opinion. Clarke has constructed a story line that moves insidiously to an increasingly inevitable outcome and one that will have readers desperate for Jem to just stop, to just see.
While Undone is undoubtedly an accomplished story, what sets it apart from contemporary contempories is the level of writing. Cat Clarke has a preternatural ability to create authentic teenage voices to the point that one might suspect some sort of voodoo channeling shenanigans at her writing desk. Jem’s raw, ravenous grief pours of the page, the black selfishness of all consuming loss palpable and, at times, incredibly difficult to read. The many scenes set at school will speak loudly to anyone who is or ever was a teen and it is this realness that makes the novel’s denouement so outstanding. The greatest triumph here, though, is that towards the end, when Jem’s seems to have lost sight of anything that matters, Clarke reels it all in. She takes the reader back to the core of her story by stating the simplest of facts succinctly, sadly and with unarguable logic. It is this, as well as the phenomenal writing and compelling story, that should place this books in classrooms and libraries around the country where it can lead those who read it to a place where it need never ring true. Read this book, it’s powerful, it’s important, and then pass it on so others can read it too. Highly, highly recommended.