by Rachel Ward
Ever since the day her mother died, Jem has known about the numbers. Numbers that pop into her head when she looks into someone’s eyes. They’re dates, the numbers. Dates predicting with brute accuracy each person’s death. Burdened by such horrible knowledge, Jem avoids relationships. Until she meets Spider, another outsider, and takes a chance. Maybe they can find happiness together, if only in the brief time that remains before his expiration date (Product Description).
What pushed this book from 3 to 4 stars for me, is the dark and gritty subtext going on here between the lines. Jem’s and Spider’s world is not a kind one — their story represents all those underprivileged, disenfranchised kids who fall through the cracks to end up working dead-end jobs, addicted to drugs, serving time, or dead. It’s not a pretty picture, and while Ward is writing from a clearly British perspective, I feel it’s not all that different in Canada either — born into poverty, drugs, and violence and most likely that’s where you stay. That cycle is a vicious one and very hard to break.
But this rip-roaring page-turner is more than just a social critique of the English class system, it’s a story of a young girl with a very unusual problem — once she makes eye contact with you she knows the exact date of your death. That’s a great hook and as soon as I heard about this book I just knew I had to read it. It doesn’t disappoint. Jem is wonderful — prickly, antisocial and with a huge chip on her shoulder, but lovable nonetheless. She’s been “through the shit” and has every right to be weary and leery. It’s only until she meets Spider that all that begins to change for her. And oh how I loved the gangly ADHD Spider, who jitters and jives to the music in his head, never able to quite shut up or sit still.
The book’s real value is that it forces us to contemplate our own mortality (terrain most teens eat up and are comfortable with) but grown-ups often run away from. If each of us started our lives knowing exactly when we were going to die, would it change how we live? Would any of us want to know? I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t. I know it’s going to happen “someday” but it’s freeing to not know exactly when. Knowing would somehow suck the life out of the time that’s left, rather than make it more precious. I think. And you gotta respect a book that makes you think.