Release date: 5th January 2009 UK / February 2010 US
Genre: Gritty realism with a hint of the paranormal
Target audience: 13+
Summary from Chicken House:
Since her mother’s death when she was seven, fifteen-year-old Jem has kept a secret. When her eyes meet someone else’s, a number comes into her head – the date on which they will die.
Knowing that nothing can last forever, Jem avoids relationships, until she meets Spider, another outsider, and her life takes a happier turn. But on their first day-out together, waiting for a ride on the London Eye, Jem realises something terrible - everyone in the queue has the same number – and her world is about to explode.
Numbers is a powerful, gritty and dark portrayal of teenage life in the UK. It has one element of the paranormal but the book is firmly grounded in our society. Fifteen year old Jem is living with her foster mum Karen. She is disaffected. The system isn't working for her. She is unhappy at school and intentionally shuts herself off from other people. Her story is hard-hitting realism that at times left a bitter taste in my mouth. Rachel Ward conveys the pain and resentment building inside Jem with a shocking accuracy. Her voice is still echoing around my head. The issue which sets Jem apart from our other disaffected youths is her ability to see the numbers. Every time Jem looks into a person's eyes, she can see their number. The date they are going to die. How does a character in such need of love and affection allow herself to connect with another person if she knows they are going to die? She doesn't or not at least until she meets Spider. He doesn't actually give her a choice.
Spider is such an endearing character. He is bursting with a zest for life, an insatiable energy and an admirable sense of optimism. Jem is almost his opposite. She is controlled, at times robotic and the only emotions she allows herself to feel are those which are destructive and fuel her anger. Perhaps their friendship is an unlikely pairing but I think they both share a feeling of being part of the underclass, of not belonging in the system. They have a cruel teacher who humiliates students by predicting their future to be one of unemployment, drugs, crime or of uninspiring jobs. The sad truth is for many of our young people this poverty cycle is real and demoralising. They see themselves fated to live a life of hardship and misery. It would be nice to think in real life that teachers have the power to improve the chances of social mobility for their students. I'll leave that thought there before I get all emotional about the state of the inequality of opportunity in British society.
The plot of this book was powerful and swift-moving. The cliffhangers at the end of the chapters kept me wanting to read on and on. I wanted to know if the numbers were set in stone or whether Jem would have the power to change them. There was one part of the story that I thought was a bit too unrealistic. Without giving anything away, it was the scene with the police dog. However, the skilful writing in this novel made me stare the harsh reality of the teen life straight in the eye. It was a pretty awful sight but it was certainly powerful.
Overall, Numbers is a book which will force you to confront the dark, failing parts of our society right in the face. It will grab you and won't let you go until you get to the end. I was reminded a little of Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses series and think if you enjoyed that, you'll be hooked on Numbers. It is not an easy read but an engaging one which left me thinking about life, death and the power to be in control of your own destiny. I highly recommend it.