Everything is possible with a little help from your friends

Life in a Fishbowl - Len Vlahos

Thanks to Net Galley and to Bloomsbury Childrens for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This novel, that although classified in the category of teen and young adult literature can be read by anyone, is the story of the Stone family whom we meet when they are at a moment of crisis. When the father, Jared, is diagnosed with a brain tumour, aware that he’ll lose his faculties and his family are going to be left without his support, he decides drastic measures are necessary. What follows is the story of how his decisions affect all around him and how we can achieve incredible things if we never give up and have the support of our friends.

The novel is told, in the third person, from a variety of characters’ point of view, including Jared (although he becomes progressively confused), Jackie, his oldest daughter, and the central point of the story, Deirdre, the mother, Megan, the younger sister, and a number of characters extraneous to the family, including a young girl whose main contact with the outside world is Warcraft, a millionaire who’d do anything to keep himself entertained, a ruthless TV executive, a hard and unforgiving nun, and even Glio, the tumour that takes over Jared’s brain.

When Jared’s plan of offering himself for sale in e-Bay doesn’t work out and he ends up signing a contract to become the star of a reality TV following the last days of his life on the screen, everybody’s lives end up in turmoil. Shy Jackie, whose only refuge is social media and her friendship with a Russian schoolboy (fantastic Max), can’t think of anything worse than having cameras at home. The way the television crew manipulates the images and creates a distorted version of her family and her reality makes her want to resist, and by the end of the novel she’s discovered that she’s strong and resourceful and she’s strengthened the link with her sister (who is seen as cruel and superficial at the start).

Most of the adults in the novel (other than one of the teachers and the members of the Stone family) are depicted as egotistical and self-serving, and they don’t truly care about others. Although some of the reviews comment that the description is not accurate as it states that the novel is Jackie’s story whilst the action is split between many characters, for me, Jackie is the heroine, the main protagonist of the book and the heart of the story. Some of the characters that occupy quite a few pages at the beginning disappear when they’ve served their purpose and others are there to either aid or mostly hinder Jackie’s attempts at helping her father end up his life with dignity.

There is a strong element of criticism of the invasion of privacy by media, in this case, a reality TV programme that, like the cancer, feeds on what it likes and leaves destruction around it. Their commercialism, manipulation and money grabbing tactics are resisted by Jackie and her friends, in a David versus Goliath situation. On the other hand, the novel also shows that social media and platforms like YouTube aren’t good or bad in themselves and they can be used to great effect to subvert the established order.

For me, the younger characters are rendered more realistically and are easier to empathise with (as is to be expected from the genre and its intended audience). The novel is particularly focused on less popular and more introverted characters, who aren’t happy in standard social situations and suffer the unwanted attention of their peers when they are not openly bullied. They get to shine through and are shown as talented, imaginative and loyal friends, in contrast with both the adults and the popular but superficial kid.

I am intrigued by the use of the tumour as one of the narrators. It allows us to share in some of Jared’s memories (and due to his rapidly progressive illness that’s one of the only ways we have of getting some sense of who this man was before his diagnosis) but most importantly perhaps, the destruction it creates (and the way it takes over his host) parallels what the TV programme do, progressively limiting the freedom of the occupants, eventually leaving them nothing. At least the tumour is not aware of it and has no will of its own. The amount of anatomical and functional detail is impressive without slowing the action or interfering with the development of the story.

An inspiring novel that deals with a difficult subject (several difficult subjects) and ultimately emphasises the importance of friends, family and of standing up for what we think is right.