One of my January ‘not quite resolutions but outcomes I’d like to achieve during the next twelve months’ was to read more fiction aimed at children and young adults. As you probably already know, I spent almost twenty years lecturing in this area, having spent the previous twenty running various school libraries, so perhaps it isn’t all that surprising that for a time I veered away from the category. However, sitting in the basement at Heywood Hill (that shop has so much to answer for) and pouring over their wonderful selection of children’s literature I realised how much I was missing being up to date, especially in relation to picture books and YA material. Inevitably, during my ‘sabbatical’ a whole new raft of writers has come onto the scene and I shall need to do some research before I dip into their work, so initially I’ve gone for the more recent publications by authors whose work I already know and love, including Marcus Sedgwick’s fascinating novel, She Is Not Invisible.
One of the most remarkable features of Sedgwick’s novel is the fact that he writes it almost completely without reference to what anything in the setting looks like. This comes about because the first person protagonist, sixteen year old Laureth, is blind and as a consequence can’t tell us anything of the visual impact of the world around her. What description we do get of the journey that she and her very much younger brother undertake comes from Benjamin’s point of view and as he doesn’t always understand what he is seeing this can be as disorientating for us as it is for Laureth, indeed, probably more so as she is used to interpreting her surroundings through limited and possibly distorted information. It’s an interesting take on the concept of the unreliable narrative and a lesson in what that can mean when a literary feature steps out of the pages of fiction and into the real world.
Sedgwick takes this theme of interpretation of the world around us further in the story he unfolds. Laureth is worried because she cannot contact her father, the author, Jack Peak. After a successful early career writing humorous fiction, Jack has become obsessed with writing a novel to do with coincidences, or ‘co-inky-dinks’ as Benjamin calls them. But what is a coincidence? Is it something remarkable or is it a phenomenon easily explained when you actually look at the science and mathematics behind the likelihood of the event occurring? Well, whatever else it is, it is the impetus that has driven Jack Peak’s life over the past number of years and that has also driven a wedge between him and his wife, so when he goes missing Laureth’s greatest fear is that this is the beginning of the end for her parents’ marriage. Until, that is, she receives a mysterious communication from someone in New York who offers proof that he has found her father’s precious writer’s notebook and claims the reward advertised therein. With only Benjamin (and Stan, but you’ll have to discover him for yourselves) as a guide, Laureth sets out to discover if this is indeed the truth.
As this is most definitely a thriller that is as far as I’m going in respect of the plot but some of the themes are worth considering further and again I ask, what is a coincidence? Mathematicians will frequently explain away specific apparent coincidences by showing us that when the numbers are crunched the chances of that coincidence occurring are actually quite high. Any teacher knows that in your average class of thirty children there will be two who were born on the same day. I don’t think I’ve ever taught a group where that wasn’t the case. But what about the coincidence that happened to me on Christmas Day? During the afternoon my god-daughter and I were discussing a play we’d been to see and completely out of the blue she drew an analogy between it and Churchill allowing the bombing of Coventry to go ahead during the Second World War so that the Germans wouldn’t know that we had broken their codes. Then, later that evening, in the middle of a crime novel set in Canada, what did I come across but exactly the same reference. What are the mathematical odds against that?
Coincidences have fascinated many of the world’s greatest thinkers. Both Jung and Einstein wrote about them. Einstein claimed that coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous. That sounds really profound, but I’m not sure what it means. Jung, on the other hand, made what seems to me to be a physics related statement when he claimed that;
the connections that occurred during a coincidence were not due to cause and effect, but … were acausal, which means that one thing had not caused the other thing to happen. Instead of causality therefore, he explained that things could be connected by their meaning; so the link between seeing a picture of a salmon just as you’re talking to a man called Salmon is that they share the same meaning.
This sounds to me to be describing a field relationship as opposed to the more linear relationship by means of which we tend to understand our lives, a concept that Einstein, as a physicist should have appreciated. All of this, and a great deal more is explored in Sedgwick’s text but the author couches it in a manner that is guaranteed to catch the interest of any teenager who picks the novel up.
The question that Jack Peak has to answer is both more and less profound than those tackled by Einstein and Jung. He has to decide whether or not he is going to let his obsession shatter his family life. To find out which way he jumps and whether that jump is literal or figurative you will need to read the book. Don’t be put off by the fact that it is aimed at a Young Adult audience. Like so many books with a YA designation this novel has much to say to an adult readership as well.