Since the day her mother died, Jem has known about the numbers. When she looks in someone's eyes, she can see the date they will die. Life is hard, until she meets a boy called Spider. Suddenly her world seems brighter. But on a trip to London, Jem foresees a chain of events that will shatter their lives forever..
Sometimes a novel comes along just at the *right* time, and Numbers by Rachel Ward was one of those books for me. We are experiencing riots here in the UK at the moment (hopefully settled down now, fingers crossed) and there has been a lot of discussion about what drove the kids to riot and loot. There was one particular part of Ward's novel that stood out for me and made me sit up: "Why do you think? It's all so simple, isn't it? Tell the truth and it will all be all right. Maybe it's like that here, but it's not where I come from. They see a black kid with some money, they see a dealer. They see a couple of kids, just chilling somewhere, hanging out, they see a couple of muggers. They need to collar someone for a crime, they collar someone - one of the usual suspects, anyone who fits the picture, doesn't matter. Truth and lies, it all gets mixed up."
Rather than the high concept science fiction novel that Numbers appears to be on first contact, it is actually more of an examination of society. It was written in 2009, two years after the bombs hit London. It shows an uneasy attitude towards certain parts of society; it highlights particular prejudices that have been around since the idea of 'haves' and 'have nots' was introduced.
Jem, the main character, is fiercely independent and knows her 'place' in the world. She is outside looking in at all those who have proper jobs, relationships and money. When she meets Spider, it is an encounter between two kindred spirits. Spider is a tall black guy, already dabbling in drugs and "deliveries" for a local gang boss. He is looked down on by some, and is intimidating to others. For me, Ward did superbly presenting these two misfit characters, and the reasons behind why people in real life might end up in poverty, excluded from school, on the outskirts of society etc. In this time of riots, it was immensely powerful.
The other part of the novel that I really enjoyed is the burgeoning love affair between Jem and Spider - it is inexpressibly tender and, above all, very real. I completely invested in these two characters.
Unfortunately, Numbers is prevented from being a top quality read by two factors. The first is that Ward seems not to know how to deal with the high concept of seeing people's death date number - at times it is used as a clumsy plot device, rather than as something that can introduce deep discussions about free will versus destiny. I would have liked to see much more of the numbers idea, including how and why this gift/curse might have been given to Jem. Some airy-fairy waved-away idea that she can just see auras is not a strong backdrop to the concept.
The second problem, for me, is that the ending of the book was a) very hurried and b) signposted from practically the start of Numbers. It was just a question of how Ward was going to get to the destination. I'm usually a gullible fool when it comes to what might happen in a novel, so, for me to grasp the ending so soon, meant that it was flagged in a very heavy-handed manner.
There was a lot to enjoy in this debut novel by Rachel Ward, albeit countered by some fundamental weaknesses. Nothing that wouldn't prevent me from picking up the second novel in the Numbers trilogy, however! I do wonder, though, how much of this review is flavoured by the fact that I could associate Numbers very much with current affairs - or is it just that bad attitudes and prejudices will always exist towards those at the bottom of society and, in fact, Ward has written about a timeless issue? Regardless, Numbers is worth your time - it is dark and poignant by turn, and kept me interested throughout.