Monday, October 25, 2010


I've failed miserably to come up with a pithy opening for this post about the book Numbers by Rachel Ward. So, I shall just get on with it, shall I? The US cover of this book exchanges the letter 'b' with the numeral '8' which doesn't really work for me -- in the 21st century world of texting, wouldn't it be "num-aters?" I like the image on the cover, though. It's more sci fi than the original British cover (see below) I think.

Numbers is the story of Jem, a 15-year-old orphan/foster kid who maintains a spiky distance from people. Jem has a disturbing gift/condition which she keeps from everyone: When she makes eye contact, an eight-digit number (like the one in my post title) enters Jem's head. (Here's a video that demonstrates this.) This number -- Jem realizes upon discovering her drug-addicted mother's dead body -- is the date of that person's death. Jem is understandably reluctant to grow close to people, as she might be persuaded to share what she knows about them.

Enter Spider. Spider is a classmate (and fellow orphan) and he teasingly pokes and prods at Jem to become friends, and she finds herself drawn to him despite herself. One day, the two head to the London Eye [this image courtesy of Kevinwildish at en.wikipedia] for some fun, although Spider makes a bit of a scene when he realizes how much it costs to ride. Jem gets even more upset when she realizes that all the people there have the same death date -- that very day. Panicked, she and Spider flee the Eye moments before one of the pods blows up. Their fugitive-like behavior is noted by observers, and soon the two of them are escaping in a stolen car, headed out to the countryside (where neither has ever been) in a futile attempt to elude the police.

Despite herself, Jem falls for Spider and tells him what she sees in people's eyes. What she doesn't tell him, though, is his death date -- just a few days from now.

The narrator is Sarah Coomes, and she is quite wonderful. She voices Jem with a working-class London accent (most notably substituting the 'th' sound with an 'f'). Jem is a lonely and vulnerable person who hides her sadness behind a tough exterior, and Coomes portrays this skillfully. Jem's first-person narration and interior moments are nicely contrasted with her edgy, prickly dialogue with Spider and the other people she encounters. Coomes does a brilliantly hilarious fury when Jem reluctantly finds herself camping in the actual outdoors (although I probably enjoyed thist more than it merited, since I'm not a camping fan either).

Coomes memorably voices a number of other characters, including two tight-arsed upper-class countrywomen, and two contrasting priests who offer Jem sanctuary in Bath Abbey. Spider's grandmother and Jem's foster mum are two other instances of this actress's ability to delineate characters with a few, authentic vocal mannerisms.

I think I appreciate this novel mostly for the character of Jem. It's hard to like her at first, but her growth in the story -- through an epilogue five years later -- seems so truthful that it's a pleasure to journey with her (sad though her journey is). Evidently it's a trilogy, but I don't want to spoil this story with what the second one is about.

Numbers by Rachel Ward
Narrated by Sarah Coomes
Brilliance Audio, 2009. 9:02 (unabridged)

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