Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Ketchup Clouds, by Annabel Pitcher

Ketchup Clouds is absolutely compulsive reading. An epistolary novel, this is Zoe’s story told through a series of letters that she writes to a prisoner on death row. Why him? Well, she figures they’ve got a bit in common: they have both committed murder. Except Zoe has gotten away with it while Stuart Harris hasn’t. Zoe needs to confide in someone and this stranger is the only person she feels she can talk to, and quietly, bit by bit, she reveals the details of her secret.

A love story and a story of secrets, Annabel Pitcher has worked into her book many different layers, family tensions, and miscommunications, culminating in both the tragedy that Zoe cannot escape from and the beginnings of release from secrets held too close. It takes a real quality of writing to so successfully create the perfect balance between emotional catharsis and the story’s revelations that Pitcher achieves here. Her place on the shortlist of the Waterstones 2013 Children’s Book Prize is well deserved. In fact, personally, I’d say she’s in with a strong chance of winning.

At the beginning of her story, Zoe meets two boys: Max and Aaron. She begins two different kinds of relationships with them, which gradually descends into confusion as the lies and secrets begin to take hold - she knows what, or who, she really wants, but trying to get it right is a lot harder than perhaps it should be. As the different deceptions build up into the leaning tower of Pisa, Zoe very efficiently keeps us guessing as to which of the two boys is ultimately going to be the victim of her ‘crime’. Meanwhile, there are troubles at home. Zoe has two little sisters - Dot, the apple of their mother’s eye, and Sophie who is increasingly left out of the fold. Add to this the fact that their father has just been made redundant, and that there is some mysterious rift between the family and their grandfather. Why does Zoe’s mum refuse to get a job? Why does she refuse to let the children visit their sick grandfather? And why is she so obsessed about finding a ‘cure’ for Dot’s disability? Everyone in this family has something to hide.

Pitcher’s characters are lifelike, rounded and realistic. Zoe is a student of average capability and average popularity but is as equally unable to resist as I would be when the popular boy in school seeks her out, and she dabbles in teenage experimentation without taking it beyond the realm of no return, making this a well-balanced story for the average teenager (15+?).

The lead-in, “I know what it’s like... Mine was a boy. And I killed him. Three months ago exactly... No one has a clue and I’m walking around like that boy, Scot Free, saying all the right things and doing all the right stuff, but inside I’m sort of screaming,” is highly compelling and Zoe’s writing style is simple and easy to read, drawing you deeper and deeper into her story. My only slight irritation was the way in which, although neither parents were working, they seemed to have zero monetary concerns - if I remember correctly, the father drives a BMW for goodness' sake - in the real world in this situation, belts would be being tightened and arguing over who gets to look for a job wouldn't really be a consideration.

Ketchup Clouds subtly reminds us that one lie easily leads to another, and secrets can be dark and dreadful things, eating away inside you. An excellently woven story, and one that I can see myself reading a second time.

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