This book distinguished itself by winning the prestigious Text Prize. On its cover, award-winning authors Fiona Woods and Alice Pung praise it while Books and Publishing called it a ‘stand out novel.’ There’s a lot to like here, especially the writing which is sharp and sometimes poetic and moving. For most of the book, however, I found myself wishing I could, like Zac and Mia, escape the prison they are both in. It’s claustrophobic in more ways than one being a teenager and having cancer, which both suffer from. For the first third of the book it felt claustrophobic being with them in adjoining hospital rooms, obedient Zac counting down the days to when he’s in remission from leukaemia after a bone marrow operation, and angry Mia rebelling against both her mother and a cancer in her ankle and forthcoming amputation. There’s so much about cancer – about white cell counts, about drugs, about survival rates -- I found it as tiresome as Zac and Mia do. Fortunately both characters are released from hospital and while there are constant referrals to the after-math of cancer, there is some ‘normality’ as each of the teenagers returns to ‘normal’ life.
The book’s chapters are narrated – not always in turn – by Zac and Mia. Zac is the most sensible, grounded, and circumspect of the two whereas Mia is for the most part feisty and dissatisfied. After hospitalisation, Zac returns to his family in the WA countryside where they raise olive trees and operate a petting farm. Having not fully completed her treatment and in pain, Mia is on the run with no real destination in mind but a desire to break free of her friendship circle and a mother she believes does not understand her. Inevitably the two are reunited. There is no real romance here, but a meeting of two young people with common suffering and a thin friendship which can – and sometimes -- does shatter when health issues intervene. During these intervals, time passes as each of the teenagers tries as best as he or she can to deal with life.
What I most liked about this book was the writing and the characterisation. Zac and Mia – and their families, especially Zac’s – are sympathetically realised, so much that one comes to care about them and their battle to beat the odds. No doubt a sensitive teenager, particularly a girl, would empathise with both the teenagers. AJ Betts has explored the themes of hope, friendship, dreams and survival in a book that deserves a wide audience.