A. J. Betts’ third Young Adult novel introduces us to gentle, mild-mannered Zac and feisty, irrepressible Mia, teenagers who come from different worlds but are thrown together in hospital as they both undergo treatment for cancer. An adjoining wall separates their rooms, and at first the teenagers can not see each other, only knocking on the wall to communicate. The early days of their friendship are fraught with moments of toe-curling awkwardness, told with an unshrinking honesty which will resonate with any reader who is, or remembers being, a teenager. We follow the characters as they leave hospital and try to assimilate back into their everyday lives, and it is here that the evidence of how fragmented their lives have become – how removed from the banal concerns of their schoolmates – is displayed with heartbreaking clarity.
Betts never shies away from presenting to us the grim realities of life with cancer, nor does she sentimentalise the plight of its sufferers. Instead, we are treated to an insight into the minds of modern day teenagers. The story is told from each teenager’s point of view in turn, and the characters leap from the page through their sharp and witty inner monologues. Zac is the calm one, trying to remain philosophical – almost stoical – about his condition. He comments wryly early on in the novel that “Cancer is a Facebook friend magnet. According to my home page, I’m more popular than ever. In the old days, people would have prayed for each other, now they Like and Comment as if they’re going for a world record.” In contrast, Mia is passionate, angry, full of hate against the world around her for the misfortune which has befallen her. “No more trying my luck with bus drivers or girlfriends or ex-boyfriends or mothers or doctors or random strangers who once stayed in adjoining hospital rooms and fed me bullshit lies. Everyone lies. … Fuck ’em all”, she rants.
Although marketed at young adults, Zac & Mia is so much more than just a novel for (or about) teenagers. The novel captures perfectly the frustration, awkwardness and vulnerability with which teenage lives are fraught during the uneasy transition to adulthood – and then throws into the mix a deadly disease, the effects of which the characters must come to terms with as they try to recapture some normality in their lives. The characters are true to life and easily recognisable to anybody who has ever been searching to find their place in the world. I absolutely took the characters of Zac and Mia into my heart, and didn’t want to let them go when the story ended.
Elegantly written and well paced, this is a book about wanting to fitting in, wanting to break out, finding your place in the world, and learning to trust others when you are at your most vulnerable. Winner of the 2012 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing and currently longlisted for the 2014 Gold Inky Awards, Zac & Mia is currently receiving a lot of attention and praise, both of which are richly deserved.
I loved this book, and I defy any reader not to do the same!