I hold a small grudge against Patrick Ness. As a child, when I dreamed of being an author I used to imagine a book with my name on it on shelves in bookshops and libraries, rubbing shoulders with the great E. Nesbit. Occasionally that does happen; more often Patrick Ness is in between, taking up a lot of space. But my new next-door neighbour is as illustrious as his predecessor.
His latest book acknowledges its debts to both Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Judy Blume’s Forever: the former, because the novel follows the events of a single day; the latter because of its frankness about teenage sex.
Adam Thorn, a gay teenager from a deeply religious family in Washington State, is instantly engaging: an immensely likeable blend of boldness and vulnerability, loyalty and cynicism, certainty and self-doubt. This decisive Saturday is to end (echoing Mrs Dalloway) with a lakeside party to see off Adam’s former lover, Enzo. But before the evening is reached, Adam is jolted by revelations from best friend Angela, brother Marty and his predatory employer, while his new boyfriend Linus seems likely to end up being hurt. Adam’s father, a small-town evangelical preacher, hasn’t yet managed to move into the twenty-first century where LGBT matters are concerned; it’s with good reason that Adam has so far kept Linus as a secret. When he does risk confiding in his father about the uncomfortable situation at work there are shocks and let-downs for both. The witty but searching banter between Adam and Angela shows that she is the one person he always trusts, but she too is about to leave.
When it comes to sex, Patrick Ness is emphatically not a writer to duck out with a coy row of dots and an evasive “Afterwards … “ He is quite clear about what and how. Enzo, with whom “there were moments of what Adam could only describe as desperation. They had to do it …” is compared to the endearing Linus, who was “enlisting Adam in the funniest, funniest thing two people could do together.” A bedroom scene with Linus is tender and touching as well as explicit, but Adam, while aware of the contrast to the more assertive Enzo, hasn’t yet recovered from the hurtful end of the earlier relationship.
Patrick Ness excels in portraying teenage friendships, passions, fears and doubts in a way that doesn’t in the least write down to his readers but carries the intensity of real experience. In this he reminds me of Aidan Chambers, a pioneer of fiercely intelligent young adult fiction. I was far less engrossed, though (in fact not at all) by the alternating supernatural sections, in which a girl recently murdered by her boyfriend at the lake haunts the place in a kind of limbo, accompanied by a giant naked faun. The two stories do eventually come together in a moment of release for both characters, but I felt that this strand was simultaneously too much and not enough, and am unsure what it adds to the novel. Perhaps I’ve missed something.
Release is published by Walker. This review is a slightly adapted version of a piece written for Armadillo online magazine.