The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Ordinary World (Review: Unravelling; Elizabeth Norris)

Elizabeth Norris
Harper Collins 2012

Janelle is a pretty ordinary girl.  She perhaps has more than usual on her plate what with her bi-polar mother, hardworking FBI father and a younger brother who she has pretty much raised but she’s doing OK.  As her summer draws to an end, she walks home from her lifeguarding job along a coastal road.  Then, suddenly, she is dying.  Hit by a speeding truck she knows without doubt that there is no recovering from her injuries and slowly starts to drift away.  Until a familiar face wills her to wake up, to hold on and to let him help.  By the time the paramedics arrive, her injuries appear to have largely disappeared and her saviour with them.  But Janelle knows who saved her and is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding her disappearing injuries even as it starts to tie in with a terrifyingly strange case being investigated by her own father.  Soon Janelle and her best friend Alex are in up to their necks in a world that will never be the same again.

Janelle is an instantly likable character.  She has an incredibly authentic voice and a strong personality that jumps of the page from the start.  She has had a lot to deal with in her seventeen years and her mother, in particular, has engendered toughness in Janelle as well as a surety in her own strength.  This is seen in her interactions with her peers.  For reasons that become apparent over the course of the book, Janelle has largely limited herself to the friendship of Alex and her brother yet she never seems isolated or tragic – rather she’s raised herself above past experience and come out stronger, better and more mature.  She has her moments, though, sometimes overreacting and letting her mouth run away with her but she owns her mistakes and (sometimes) learns from them.  Sometimes.  Because, as she herself would say, she’s like that.

Best friend Alex and the mysterious Ben are the primary supporting acts in a story that has a large cast of characters.  Alex is the consummate best friend.  He’s stuck with Janelle through childhood, understands her complex family and pretty much always fights her corner without letting her get away with her more impulsive actions.  He’s pretty great and his role in the expanding story is always interesting.  Ben, the boy with all the secrets, is another well-written character.  Elizabeth Norris moves him seamlessly from artless stoner to friend to tentative love interest.  He’s a vitally conflicted character and the interactions between him and Janelle are enjoyable and real – there is no instalove here, just a slow burn of attraction and mutual respect and support.  With Ben comes the spiky Elijah who resents Janelle and hates the life in which he finds himself.  In his own, sometimes abhorrent, way Elijah is as great a best friend as Alex and adds both tension and a bit of pathos to what is often an all action storyline.

Special mention must go to the adults in Unravelling.  Janelle’s father, in particular, is a well-drawn character.  His love of Star Wars, the X Files, his work and his children is tangible as is his bone-deep weariness.  The nature of his relationship with Janelle is interesting but there is never any doubt of his utter devotion to her and her brother’s wellbeing.  His FBI colleagues, especially partner Struz and the shady Agent Barclay could easily have been rather two dimensional, but Norris gives them the page time necessary to give Janelle’s world real believability. Finally, her mother is a heartbreaking portrayal of a mental disorder that has moved past the point of no return.

The plot and premise of Unravelling is not one seen in YA previously, although fans of both Doctor Who and Fringe will be familiar with the ideas that Norris has used to create a fantastic, action packed and emotive story.   It’s incredibly compelling storytelling and Norris never pulls her punches, regularly pulling the rug out from under the readers flailing feet, imbuing her sci-fi thriller with real emotion as well as adrenalin. The first in a series that has been tagged as “the X Files meets 24”, it never fails to thrill and works as well as a standalone as it does as the start of an ongoing tale - it is certainly some of the most accomplished YA science fiction out there.  For fans of the aforementioned TV shows, reading this should be a no brainer.  In fact, we highly recommend it to anyone who likes an intelligent with a side helping of heart. Read it, and enjoy a truly enjoyable ride.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Unravelling is available in both physical and e-book versions as it its sequel, Unbreakable (review coming soon). Thank you to Harper Collins for sending us this title to review.

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