Sunday, 23 March 2014

Panic, by Lauren Oliver

What are your greatest fears? What makes your stomach drop, your legs turn to jelly, your brain shut down? What makes you panic?

For the teenagers of small, run-down Carp, Panic is a game. It’s a game of nerve, a game with a big payoff: $50,000. Only graduating seniors can enter, and you have to be made of steel to win. The players will be pushed to their limits, and forced to discover what will drive them to overcome their fears, to go that extra mile.

Panic, Lauren Oliver’s new book, is a departure from her Delirium series – more thriller, less love story – yet conforms to her signature style, touching on themes and ideas as equally relevant to teens as to adults. Despite being 400 pages long, it feels like I read it in a flash, the adrenaline from the characters seeping off the page, making my palms sweat and my heart race.

Contestants declare their intention to play by jumping off a twenty-foot high rock in the middle of lake at the start of summer, and then they’re gradually whittled down to two or three players over the following weeks through a series of challenges – often with deadly consequences. There’s walking across a plank suspended between two water towers, stealing from the most feared man in town, Russian Roulette, holding out in a burning building. The judges are anonymous, the game a challenge against the poor background of Carp’s inhabitants, a challenge against boredom.

Heather hadn’t been planning to play Panic, but changed her mind at the last minute after seeing her boyfriend making out with another girl. But will this be enough motivation to see her through the death-defying challenges ahead? Dodge, by contrast, has plenty to fuel him: revenge. And he’s willing to go to any length to get what he wants. This is a game with no rules, no holds barred, but plenty of consequences.

Oliver alternates between Dodge and Heather’s viewpoints as the summer ticks by and Panic takes hold of their lives. I related much more to Heather’s story than Dodge’s – as the game progresses, Heather’s life goes under several stages of turmoil, from her freezing lack of self-esteem, losing one job and starting another, dealing with her difficult mother, caretaking her little sister, and the ups and down in her friendships as the tremours from Panic ripple outwards. Dodge is a different cup of tea – an unreliable narrator, I was never entirely sure whose side he was on or which way he was going to turn. This was a brilliant choice of Oliver’s: instead of using Dodge as a love interest (my assumption before I opened the book), by making his loyalties so difficult to predict, Oliver brings an extra level of tension and fear to the story, and plenty of opportunities for betrayal.

In fact, everyone seems to betray everyone else at some point. How will any of them remain friends with each other by the end? It’s interesting how prevalent betrayal is in a story that started life as an exploration of fear – perhaps because, aside from any immediate threat to life and limb, being left alone or abandoned by one’s friends and family is the next biggest fear in most people’s lives. That, or having somebody discover you’re not who you want them to think you are: Heather’s greatest fear is not ever being loved. Dodge’s? Well, the same, essentially, I think – for his disabled sister to not need him anymore. Ironically, Heather, who initially joins Panic on a whim, knows her fear right from the beginning; it’s Dodge who only comes to terms with his fear during the game, despite having a stronger motivation to play to begin with. And as the tables turn, Heather’s motivation to win grows: to win means the chance to hold onto those she loves and those who love her – whilst Dodge’s motivation peters away down the drain as everything he thought he was playing for unravels in front of eyes.

Whist reading, I couldn’t help but wonder: would I play Panic? If it was me, how would I cope with each of the challenges of the game? And not just the game, but the other challenges our characters must face as well. Probably not very well! But then, with those dollar signs before your eyes, who wouldn’t be tempted to try? Panic is and edge-of-the-seat race for the end. And as only one person can win, who will you be putting your money on?

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