Saturday, 7 September 2013

4 to 16 Characters by Kelly Hourihan (review)

Rating: 4.5/5 Go get it!
Source: An ARC from NetGalley (thank you Lemon Sherbet Press)

Synopsis from Goodreads: Fifteen-year-old Jane Shilling’s best friends don’t know her real name. In fact, they don’t know anything about her at all. Jane’s life has collapsed in the last few years; following the death of her mother, her father turned to drinking, and Jane is reeling from the double blow. To escape, Jane devises a number of online personas, each with a distinct personality, life history, and set of friends. But things become trickier when she finds herself drawing close to some of her online friends, and winds up struggling with the question of how to maintain a real friendship while masquerading as a fake person. With the help of Gary, a socially awkward classmate and competitive Skeeball player who is Jane’s only offline friend, and Nora, her therapist, Jane begins to sift through her issues. The only catch is that that involves taking a long, hard look at what her life’s like when the computer is shut off, and that’s a reality she’s been fighting for years.

Check out my review after the jump!

I really liked this book. Something about it just felt so raw, which is weird because a lot of it is told through online conversations, which should theoretically be the kind of conversations where we create the biggest artifices. Where we hide ourselves the most. Right? I’ve never been deep into the online world, never lived my entire life through a computer, but I’ve definitely felt the temptation to. I remember being 10 or 11, and discovering chatrooms for the first time. Anyone remember A/S/L? My friend Bryony and I used to go on to them and pretend to be completely different people. 20/Male/Utah, 59/Female/Hull. Our online characters only ever lasted for 5 minutes though, before we got bored and went on Neopets. (BRB, going to play a game of Faerie Bubbles).
Jane started making fake characters almost as soon as she started becoming part of the internet community, but after her mum died they became more than just a fun diversion after school, they became her identity. At least the identity she’d like to have if her mum weren’t dead and her dad weren’t a drunk. To complicate things for Jane, she also has a... disorder maybe? I don’t want to put label on it because all the way through the book Jane rails against the labels that have been stuck on to her by endless rounds of therapists and teachers. Her anger at these people is palpable, it was almost as if it were a 3D object leaping off the page. As you get to know Jane more though, you see that this anger is just another wall that she puts between herself and the rest of the world. Whether that world is virtual or physical. 
I loved how there were no quick fixes. *Spoiler alert* no-one comes riding in on a white horse, and dealing properly with grief means that things will get worse before they get better. The depiction of online life, whilst obviously being presented as unhealthy for Jane, is also never demonised. Like any form of escapism, the internet can be used as a helpful tool, but just as equally as an unhelpful one. 
The secondary characters are also brilliant and feel incredibly real. Gary, the incredibly sweet Skee ball player (I had to look that one up!) was a highlight, and I loved how Hourihan made him come alive mostly through badly misspelled IM chats. That’s a gift. 

4 to 16 Characters is a brilliant novel that will speak to anyone who has ever been part of a fandom, or sought to escape their life and become someone else, even if it’s just for a day, or become obsessive about a TV show or a book or a film. So, pretty much everyone. Go grab it. 

4 to 16 Characters is published by Lemon Sherbet Press and will be released on November 7th 2013. 

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