A 14-year-old finds comfort in botany while dealing with his younger sister’s illness in this debut YA novel.
As he enters his home in Newcastle, England, teenager Oliver Campbell is shocked to discover his 5-year-old sister, Lily, convulsing as his mother looks on helplessly. When Lily must be hospitalized, it upends Oliver’s family, which includes his half brothers, Nathan and Sam. It also changes Oliver’s day-to-day existence, which was usually spent hanging out with his word-nerd pal, Kamal, and crushing on a girl named Poppy Teasdale. She’s a year above him in school and works in her family’s garden shop. There, she and tongue-tied Oliver “usually ended up with little bursts of coded plant-speak.” As the novel progresses, he faces protracted agony, as well as a brief reprieve, regarding Lily’s mysterious condition, and a sympathetic nurse shares news of his pain and plight in emails to her own elderly mother. On a school trip to the Tate art gallery in London, Oliver almost decides to run away, but he’s stopped by a sage homeless man. He also overcomes his shyness in order to practice and then perform the role of Laertes to Kamal’s Hamlet in the school play—a part that perhaps hits a bit too close to home. By novel’s end, Oliver comes to new understandings with his neglectful mother and the elusive Poppy, who’s away in Australia during much of his family’s crisis. Best of all, he has some flowers in his family’s garden to soothe his suffering and loss. Debut novelist Johnston takes readers on a rich emotional journey in this contemporary YA tale, which she tells mostly from Oliver’s first-person perspective. Through his musings, she masterfully conveys both the inner angst and deflective banter of a struggling adolescent boy, which is by turns humorous and heartbreaking. The novel’s botany motif is sometimes a bit overextended, as even the nurse has the middle name of “Dahlia.” Still, the author largely uses this device to compelling effect—most particularly when she reveals the flower name of Kamal, Oliver’s well-developed sidekick.
An accomplished, touching debut featuring moving insights into the mind of a sensitive teenage boy.