Monday, 19 December 2016

'How Not To Disappear' by Clare Furniss

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*This review will contain spoilers!*
'Why would God have given us bodies that enjoy the touch of another person or minds that fall in love if he hadn't wanted us to use them? Aren't we saying He got it wrong by imagining that these things are sinful?'

'I'm spinning, round and round, my arms held out, head thrown back towards the pale spring sun.'
I didn't like the original cover of 'How Not To Disappear', but this first sentence made me love it. This scene is referenced time and time again throughout the novel, showing how sometimes the most memorable moments are the ones that are the least life-changing.

Hattie is pregnant.
She slept with her best friend Reuben - a one-night stand that she thinks was a HUGE mistake - but now she has to deal with the consequences of having unprotected sex. It doesn't help she hasn't seen him since: he left without saying goodbye and is now travelling across Europe with his French girlfriend, Camille. Awkward.
Hattie's other best friend Kat has also gone off on her travels: she's in Scotland with her new girlfriend, Zoe. Kat's having so much fun that she doesn't have time to contact Hattie, who feels completely alone and is - understandably - panicking. She isn't the type of girl to get pregnant, she's meant to be going to university and travelling the world and having some kind of remarkable career!
Hattie's sat on the toilet, having just taken ANOTHER pregnancy test, when she finally decides to call the doctor's surgery and book an appointment. She's got the phone in her hand when it rings, and upon answering it her life changes forever.
On the other end of the phone is Peggy, her great-aunt Gloria's neighbour. This is news to Hattie: she didn't even know she had a great-aunt. Peggy tells her that Gloria's ill, and getting to meet family might be good for her, so Hattie promises to pass the request on to her mum. Gloria is her father's aunt, and he's dead; Dominic was a war reporter, and was killed in a roadside bomb explosion ten years ago.
Hattie's mum is too busy to contact Gloria. Her and her boyfriend Carl are getting married, she's juggling that with work and with Hattie's younger siblings, twins Alice and Ollie. She feels sympathetic towards the old woman but she doesn't feel any responsibility: they aren't related. Hattie argues with her because Gloria is her relative, so her mother gives her permission to go alone if she'd like to.
She tells Reuben about Gloria in an email, and he warns her not to get involved, saying that it might be dangerous to meet a stranger. Her mum's reluctance combined with Reuben's demand make Hattie even more convinced, and it's not long before she's travelling across London to meet her long lost relative.
On her arrival, Peggy breaks the news to Hattie: Gloria is suffering with dementia, so she might be confused about who Hattie is. They get off on the wrong foot, Gloria telling Hattie she didn't need to visit her and that she didn't need any help, and it all comes to a head when Gloria tells Hattie that young people can't have any real problems, to which Hattie announces that she's pregnant and storms out of the house.
Gloria's the first person she's told, but Hattie doesn't think she'll care. Gloria was rude and horrible to her, and she wishes she hadn't bothered. She researches the symptoms of dementia and finds that this can be one of the telltale signs: sufferers don't like showing their vulnerability, so they put up walls and get defensive, lashing out at the people around them. When a letter from Gloria arrives in the post, Hattie is surprised, but she's grateful to have another chance to learn more about her family's past and why Gloria was kept a secret from them.

This was one of the best books I've read in 2016. I've had it on my radar for a while but was only convinced to read it after it was chosen as the #SundayYA book club pick of the month, and I'm so grateful that it was. 
The discussion laced throughout this novel - regarding abortion vs. adoption vs. becoming a teen mum - is particularly thought-provoking and scarily relevant (particularly at the moment, when the Repeal the 8th fight is still raging in Ireland and birth control in America seems to be at risk). 
Women need to have the right to choose what they do with their bodies. It's their individual body, which means it's their individual choice, and they shouldn't be forced to play by someone else's rules when it's a choice that personally impacts them and changes the course of their lives. 
I'm grateful that society has changed in the time that's passed since Gloria's story and that single and young mothers are no longer finding their babies ripped away from them, but it upsets me deeply that something so heinous could have been socially acceptable for so long. Reading this story brought a tear to my eye and an ache to my heart: particularly in Edie's case, a woman who was so desperate to keep her baby but wasn't allowed to. 
Clare Furniss didn't use her platform as an opportunity to preach. Hattie takes her time and she evaluates every possible option, taking Reuben's feelings into consideration but ultimately not allowing him to make her do something she'd regret. I'm overjoyed that there's such a mature representation of teenage pregnancy out there in the YA world, and I hope this book helps many teenagers in the future. There's no pressure to make a certain choice, no calls that abortion is wrong, and Clare consistently refers to the beginnings of the baby as exactly what it is: a collection of cells that aren't yet sentient.
Meanwhile, Gloria's story is told in a sensitive way, showing the way that dementia is a slow deterioration and doesn't erase the sufferer's memory and personality overnight. This book tackles misconceptions, and by making Gloria so sassy and confrontational at the start it makes the moment she eventually starts opening up and letting Hattie see her softer side that much more poignant. It's about time teenagers were educated on mental health issues that impact the elderly: considering that one in six people over 80 suffer with some form of dementia, it's likely to touch everyone in some way, shape or form during the course of their lives. 

If you liked Jenny Downham's 'Unbecoming', you will LOVE this novel. Whereas 'Unbecoming' deals with the onset of dementia and a girl struggling to deal with her sexuality, 'How Not To Disappear' deals with dementia and teen pregnancy; the focus is on the family, and the way that both of the individual stories impact all of the people close to them. 
I haven't read 'Year of the Rat' yet, but there's no doubt in my mind that I'm going to do that. Clare's writing is impeccable, and I need more of it. I'm already tempted to reread 'How Not To Disappear' - that's how good it was! I can't put into words how much I loved this novel. There wasn't a single moment that disappointed me or that I thought could have gone better. I loved the road trip, the subplot of the relationship between Kat and Zoey, Reuben's emails (and the spelling mistakes spattered through them making them more realistic and giving him a solid voice even when we hadn't met him on the page), Gloria's family and Hattie's family and the contrasts between their backgrounds that contrasted with the parallels between the two viewpoints.
I did guess the big twist at the end within the first couple of chapters, but that just made it even more satisfying: it made so much sense, and it made me even more emotional to be proven right when it was such a tender resolution.

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