'Fifteen and Falling' by Susan Holliday. Publisher: Pollinger in Print ISBN 978 1 905665 79 2
A book for older teens - and adults too.
This is a book that states a message, albeit from a compassionate and non-judgemental point of view, about the ease with which drug taking can entice and wreck young lives. First and foremost though, it is a skilfully written novel and one that is hard to put down.
The first chapter takes us straight into the narrative as Sara wonders if the attraction she feels for Liam could be love. We learn of Liam’s charismatic personality, the problems in his background, Sara’s over-protective mum, the beloved dad who has died and the strong bond of friendship with Ruby. The chapter ends on a note of suspense with Liam saying to Sara ‘There’s something else I want to tell you. It’s important you should know.’ This in turn leads us into the next chapter and Liam’s confession of how he has been drawn into the world of drugs.
All this sets the tone, pace and tension in the book Almost from the start Sara makes attempts to escape, physically and emotionally. The reader wants her to be rescued, wants her to call home, be safe and reunited with her family but each time something gets in the way – a misunderstanding, Liam’s claim that he will kill himself, phone calls that don’t get through.
As I say, ‘Fifteen and Falling’ is a book that is hard to put down.
The young people in this story find themselves inexorably drawn into the world of drugs. Nothing is glamorized here. The idea of living in a squat at first appeals to Sara as something rebellious, free and different but she soon notices that ‘the floor was littered with dirty coffee cups and empty bottles of vodka and dirty syringes and cigarette stubs. A sweet, musty smell hung over the room like a dirty dishcloth.’ Sleeping rough on the embankment near Charing Cross is equally squalid: ‘If they hadn’t been high they would have choked at the smell and sight, old crumpled bodies thrown like broken gargoyles carelessly to the ground.’
The book is rich in symbolism. There are several references to the Minotaur and throughout there is the sense of a labyrinth – one that is easy to walk into but where one may soon get lost. Keeping a grip on good memories is compared to holding on to Ariadne’s thread; when Liam and Si smoke pot they feel they could kill any monster; Sara reflects on how monsters don’t seem dangerous in children’s stories and are always defeated in the end. This is the classic journey theme: the clash between good and evil, a sense of fallen angels and a bottomless pit. Here are beguiling temptations and not many signposts to the straight path. Along the way there a few guardians: Sara’s Gran, Tom the newsagent, the memory and spirit of Sara’s father, the bonds of family and friends.
This is also a book about communication or the lack of it. Sara’s mum ‘simply didn’t know how to put things into words’. Neither does Sara know how to reach out to her. Her thoughts are ambivalent. ‘I want you to rescue me. I hate you, leave me alone. I love you.’ This lack of communication contributes to Sara running away with Liam, angry with a mother who reads her diary, nags about the state of the bedroom instead of noticing her daughter’s confusion and heartache. In contrast, Sara’s experiences with Liam are ‘intensely, defiantly private.’ They give her a sense of excitement and purpose.
A theme that comes over very strongly in this book is how a person can be influenced by charisma, by the personality of another. Sara is moved when Liam says ‘I don’t know what I’d do without you Sara.’ She needs to be needed, likes someone to take charge, feels a sense of responsibility and ownership. Liam’s words ‘you and I against the world’ are enticing.
Yet, ultimately, the consequences of such emotions may be destructive. The reader is left with the image of butterfly and collector: ‘Liam held her as if she was as delicate as the butterflies he had once caught as a child ... he pinned them down, fragile and bright, onto a velvet cushion in a box.’ In the end Sara feels ‘weak and powerless and afraid.’
The story of ‘Fifteen and Falling’ reveals how easily things can start out well and so easily go wrong. Sara is persuaded by Liam into taking increasingly strong drugs knowing ‘she wouldn’t care too much what was happening.’ After a while this is more than a casual habit. ‘Now I can’t stop things happening’, says Sara. ‘They just happen’.
The warning is clear and is spelled out by Sara’s father in a dream. It will begin, he says, as ‘a fellowship with others who are travelling the same way, a sense of belonging, a warmth that protects you from an alien world ... soon that broad and easy path becomes a little, grey, magnetic point.’
This is an important book, for adults as well as older teens. A must for today.