Beloved by critics and book clubs across the UK, the story of Jamie Matthews made me sob and sniffle on public transport, and warmed readers around the world with its funny, heartbreaking power and honesty.
And now, Annabel Pitcher is back, with another story of a family in crisis. This time, her narrator is fifteen-year-old Zoe, a schoolgirl with a secret. A secret she can’t confess to anyone she knows, but that she can’t keep to herself either.
Zoe’s family is just as troubled as she is; they face a sad, frustrating and confusing set of challenges, with grief, guilt, anxiety and an assortment of ‘issues’ all playing their parts.
Zoe, meanwhile, is more concerned with her own secret; in the first few pages, she confesses that she’s her role in a death that happened almost a year ago, one that no-one knows she was responsible for.
Unable to tell the truth to her family or friends, Zoe begins telling her story in a series of letters, written and sent to a Stuart Harris, a Death Row inmate in an American prison.
From this initial introduction, the suspense begins to build; Zoe wants to tell her story before their time ‘together’ runs out, to alleviate her guilt.
Fifteen-year-old Zoe is a schoolgirl with a secret. A secret she can't confess to anyone she knows, but that she can't keep to herself either. Her compulsion to confess has her reaching out to a convicted murderer, on the assumption that he’ll understand, despite their communication being one-sided, anonymous and possibly even imagined
Like Jamie Matthews, the narrator of My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, Zoe doesn’t always seem to understand the gravity – or even the reality – of some of the situations she ends up in, meaning the reader has to put some puzzle pieces together themselves to get the entire picture.
Zoe is a sincere and credible character; opinionated, innocent and idealistic, while also at times volatile, naïve and misguided. In other words, a typical teenager, with a convincing and compelling voice and dialogue.
Writing to Stuart while sat in her garden shed eating jam sandwiches and ruminating on spiders, insomnia (her advice to her death row penpal is to count tyrants like Hitler instead of sheep), poetry and redemption, Zoe recounts both her current situation and the circumstances that led to it.
This juxtaposition of past and present – revealed in a drip-feed of background dramas, details and asides, shows how Zoe has changed since the tragic ‘accident’ – and the domino effect of what happened on those around her.
Zoe’s tension and anxiety are palpable, but there is enough warmth and humour in the book to just about keep the darkness at bay. Rather than the issues taking centre stage, the narrative driving force is Zoe’s telling of her story to Stuart; we want to find out who died, and how, what the fall-out was and what the consequences will be.
Though occasionally clumsy, with an ending that could feel anticlimactic, overall Ketchup Clouds is moving, bittersweet and beautiful; similar enough to her first book for Pitcher’s fans to feel comfortable, but original enough in idea, voice and execution to keep them turning those pages.
Ketchup Clouds was published last month by Indigo, an imprint of Orion Books. Get the hardback from Foyles, Amazon, or your local independent bookseller now, or get the Kindle edition. For more, take a look at the trailer.
Recommended for: Anyone who loved My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, along with teenage readers and adults who remember all too well the melodrama, conflict and confusion of being Zoe’s age.
Other recommended reading: Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth is another story of teenage girls with dark secrets that they daren’t confess. See also Weirdo by Cathi Unsworth, The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan and Whores on the Hill by Colleen Curran.