Friday, 11 March 2016

Jessica's Ghost, by Andrew Norris

A sweet and uplifting story about battling depression and loneliness and thriving through being different, Jessica's ghost tackles some pretty grim, upsetting subjects in a way that is accessible, relateable and quite enjoyable to read. It reinforces, as does much YA, the merits of being able to be yourself. It shows the liberation of realising that people's opinions don't matter, that none if it matters, as long as there are people in your life that care and that encourage you to be yourself.

Francis, sitting alone on a bench one frost break time is abruptly joined by Jessica, a ghost about his own age who up until now, has not been seen or spoken to, by anyone, in the year since she died. Needless to say, she is surprised to find that Francis can see and hear her. A lonely boy due to his interest in fashion and sewing, Francis and Jessica quickly become inseparable. Francis doesn't really have any friends in school and Jessica is just relieved to have somebody that can see her.

Their happy duo becomes a trio when Francis' mum inadvertently arranges for her son to befriend a newcomer to the street. Andi, thought initially to be Andy, is a rough and ready tomboy, expelled from her last school for fighting and adamant that she will not go to another. After meeting Francis and Jessica (who she too can see), Andi experiences a sudden, dramatic personality change. Her general fascination in Jessica and the fact that she is a ghost creates an instant bond between the three of them and new friends are able to ease her anxiety about school. She goes from being angry, sullen and violent to being reasonable and co-operative, almost over night. For once, she has got people that are willing to accept her, and it makes all of the difference to her outlook and behaviour.

After the miracle that Francis worked on Andi, he's recruited by a second mum, who wants Francis to talk her son Roland into getting out of his room and going to school. Intrigued by Jessica (whom he can see too), it's not long before the trio is a foursome, and Roland is enrolled at their school, much to the amazement of his mum. It's a sweet story really, with Jessica's ghost as a good-deed dooer bringing together three lonely, desperate teenagers, each one of whom has considered suicide. She's hung around after death, convinced that there is something that she's supposed to do but not sure what.

I liked this book's portrayal of depression and found it to be quite realistic and sensitively done. I liked that it raised the idea that depressive thoughts can strike absolutely indiscriminately- no warning, no causes, no pattern and apparently no way out. Jessica talks about falling into The Pit, about how some days a person can feel fine, convinced that the pain and misery was just a blip and it's all sorted now...only to be plunged into despair the next day, thoroughly certain that there is nothing that anybody could do, even if they wanted to, to help. I liked that it acknowledged the difference between the rational, everyday thought process and the thought process of a depressed mind.

Standing out can be painful and alienating and scary, but as long as there are one or two people that you can truly be yourself around, being different becomes liberating. Celebrating each other's weirdness is a powerful thing. I really, really liked this book, but I found it to be thematically quite similar to We Are All Made of Molecules (lots of combating bullies, celebrating what makes us different, anxieties about being weird or standing out, fixing life's issues with the careful application of good friends and family) so it's unlikely that they'll both make the shortlist. I enjoyed this book a lot and thoroughly loved the character of Francis, the dressmaking silver-tongued rescuer that can make all the difference to the life and outlook of a desperate person just by being nice and by being himself, and, of course, encouraging everybody else to do the same.

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