Bet Your Life is the second book in Jane Casey’s Jess Tennant series for the YA market. Most readers of this blog will know Casey best for her Maeve Kerrigan novels and will therefore already respect her as an extremely good writer. If you put aside any prejudices you might have about fiction aimed at teenagers and join Jess in her search for justice in the small West Country town of Port Sentinel you will find that the author’s storytelling skills and ability to draw deft and believable character portraits transfer extremely well into a new genre and in Jess herself discover a heroine every bit as feisty and determined as Maeve.
Jess and her mother, Molly, whom we first met in How to Fall, have come to live in Port Sentinel with Molly’s family after a disastrous divorce makes living in London impossible. In the first novel Jess, who finds it hard to fit in with the high living and overly fashion conscious youth of the the sea-side community, digs away until she discovers what really happened to her cousin Freya, whose apparent suicide has left her family in disaray. In so doing she lays bare a cyber bullying network that reveals the extent of the damage that can be done to those who are targeted by the cowards behind this insidious practice.
In this second novel it is the issues of date rape that features most strongly when Jess sets out to discover what has actually happened to Seb Dawson, who has been found with serious head injuries after most of the town’s young people have been attending a firework display. The adults, especially Seb’s stepmother, seem content to put it down to a hit and run incident, but Jess is certain this isn’t the case. Having no time for Seb himself, a blackmailing bully who thinks the world revolves around his needs, Jess would be happy to let the matter drop, but Seb’s half sister, Beth, begs her to find the truth. In so doing she uncovers a network of youths who think they can take whatever they want and destroy as many other people’s lives as it takes in the process. Indeed, if there should be another theme lurking here it is that of the danger inherent in a certain type of man who thinks that his will is law and whatever it takes to get what he wants, justified. Some of the males in this novel should have been put down at birth for the sake of the whole community.
This aspect of the book is picked up again in the appearance on the scene of Jess’s father intent on talking his ex-wife into coming back to him for the convenience of his latest money-making scheme. If the novel has a weak point it is the way in which Christopher Tennant is allowed to abuse both his wife and daughter over a meal with the rest of Molly’s family. I can’t imagine that the other adults present wouldn’t have at the least objected to his behaviour. I would have quite simply have told him to leave. But this is the difficulty of YA fiction. If your heroes and heroines are going to be teenagers what do you do with the responsible adults who ought to be taking charge? If you’re Enid Blyton, or if you’re writing anything with a whiff of fantasy about it, you kill them off. Casey, whose depiction of teenage life is all too real, doesn’t have that option. In fact, I think the writer deals better with this aspect of the world she has created in this book than she did in the last. Molly is beginning to develop a bit of bite and the police inspector, who previously had seemed at best incompetent and at worst indifferent, is becoming a more rounded and easier to understand individual. Nevertheless, I did come away from this novel wanting to take some of the so-called grown ups into a quiet corner and ask them just what they thought they were playing at.
But, and this is surely what matters, a teenage reader isn’t going to feel that way at all. A teenage reader is going to be there cheering Jess on and at the same time, hopefully, taking note of the way in which she refuses to be caught up in the games that these youths play, even though at times she is still all too vulnerable to the consequences of their malignancy.
This series is amongst the best of current YA fiction and it is really good to see a writer such as Casey targeting her talents towards this market. Not only does it mean that when her audience leaves the world of YA literature behind she is likely to retain them as readers of her own adult fiction but they are also likely to want to go further and explore other writers from the same and eventually different genres.
With thanks to Random House Children’s Publishers UK who made this book available for review.