All sorts of ‘autobiographical first novel’ alarms went off when I looked at this, and then it turned out that the narrator lives in Hampstead (so even the school bully listens to Radio 4) and has a relentlessly chirpy terminally-ill gran and a crush on a boy who survived the Rwandan genocide. By a third of the way through the unlikely-coincidence-o-meter was in the red zone. It looked at first as if this story would be overburdened with Issues, of the kind you have to have if your teen-read is to win an award (see, for example, Sobibor on the shelf below it).
But somehow it all works. That’s mainly down to the pacing of incidents. The four members of the writing group tell their stories and undercut Mira’s present-tense diary. That diary has her doodles on the first page of each day – one day is all doodle and no text – and has just enough wonky grammar and resolute avoidance of ‘said’ (as Yr 7s are always told to do) to be plausible, however much the rest of the book makes her seem a lot older and more insightful than is natural for that age. It’s odd that a book printed in 2011 seems so out-of-time, but Mira is barely able to master a mobile, and never mentions any social media. I can’t imagine any real twelve-year-old girls identifying with Mira too strenuously but the people in her world are all worth having her introduce us to them. I mentioned the similarity to the author’s circumstances and those of the Levenson family: looking back, I can’t remember the mother getting more than two lines of dialogue. Instead we get a hands-on dad and two wise and funny older women, a couple of misguided female authority-figures the right age and some supernaturally smart dogs.
By Tat Wood