Will’s big brother Shaun is dead. He was shot in the street. The news is seismic; with Will’s Dad long since passed before he could know him, Shawn was his mentor, confidant and role model. One thing Will learnt from Shaun was a simple set of rules: you don’t cry, you don’t snitch, and if someone you love gets killed, you avenge them in kind. As Will says, these rules
weren’t meant to be broken.
They were made for the broken
This is a novel in verse. My new job involves the odd conversation with creative writing students, and we were talking recently about the renaissance in poetry reading among young people (I was thinking of writers like Rupi Kaur and Yrsa Daley-Ward whose Instagram fame has converted into book sales). I could tell this one young man was surprised when I told him about the verse novel is a major phenomenon in Young Adult writing. Yes, Robin Robertson’s novel-length poem The Long Take was a Booker shortlistee last year, and Max Porter’s indefinable work Lanny will (I hope) garner further awards this year: by contrast, the likes of Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan have long since made it a form to be reckoned with in YA literature. This year’s Carnegie Prize alone features three novels in verse – and I think that’s remarkable.
The author makes extraordinary and varied use of the form. One surprising thing is how natural it feels: telling the story in Will’s voice, Jason Reynolds affords himself all the more freedom to capture the human voice; the voice of testimony, loss and adolescent swagger, all the while liable to shift like a riverbed in a stream and show something more beneath the surface.
Elsewhere, it effortlessly depicts the power of grief to disorientate: as we read, words and phrases fracture and the novel opens out into the silence of white space. These are the words of a young man whose world has split down its fault-lines and – as he shoves his brother’s pistol in the waistband at the back of his jeans and boards the elevator on his mission of revenge – a world threatening to fall apart entirely. It’s a world held together by rules, stories and creeds, and Reynolds’ poetry emphasises the strangeness of that linguistic world. His narrator has a thing for anagrams:
somehow still make
It’s a device Reynolds uses in his novel Ghost, which I also read this week, in which a boy (younger than William, potentially reflecting their respective readers) accidentally find a talent for running, and returns with fascination repetition to his copy of the Guinness Book of World Records. It nicely frames a child’s view of the world – and like the Ghost’s verve and nuance, it reminded me of Betsy Byars’ writing and her protagonists’ defining traits – and it takes its protagonist subtly into questions of measuring and achieving greatness. It’s an honest depiction of children’s naivety but in a way that stresses their power and potential.
Ghost is a heartwarming, pageturning, wisecracking adventure in one boy’s real life of troubles and joys. A couple of glancing but substantial references to extremely bad fathers raise the ‘maturity bar’ in my opinion (I wouldn’t be so foolish as to put an absolute number on it) but I do hope it continues to grow in reader and bookseller awareness: Reynolds’ narrative fluency and deftness with character make it a dynamic reading experience and give us an authentic, empowered, complex young black hero. And you don’t have to care (as I do not care at all) about sport.
For what it’s worth, the sensitivity deployed in Long Way Down means I would recommend it to both younger and older teenagers. It will show them some of the things a novel can make us feel. It’s a dark tale, though – you know that within a few pages, but as Will’s elevator makes its first stop and a man gets on, someone Will knows, and that he knows should not be alive to board that elevator, things go darker by a shade. And I do mean shade, in the spooky sense: the first of several to join Will for a conversation.
Here, Reynolds’ use of verse and his capture of Will’s voice take on a new variation, as the story gains the overtones of folk tale, ghost tale, urban legend, cautionary tale. We are unsettled and we are moved, but we are never left with such a definitive viewpoint that Reynolds’ story loses its subtlety. The author-illustrator Chris Priestley reflects Reynolds’ tone, startlingly real and teasingly strange, in his brilliant illustrations. In smoky black white close-ups and cutaways, Priestley draws us deeper into the claustrophobia of Will’s world. We hear him tell his unbelievable tale; we catch glances of his indescribable world; throughout the whole reading experience, it is the reader who has to answer the questions posed by the novel, right up to its final page.
I’m thrilled that Long Way Down is on the Carnegie shortlist. It’s a journey all curious readers should make.