A voice on an old tape brings people together across the years [Review]

By John Millen
By John Millen |

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By Steven Camden
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 978 0 00 751120 4

This intriguing debut novel by popular British spoken-word artist Steven Camden tells two stories that unfold 20 years apart, but slowly move together as connections and coincidences unite the two narratives in the final chapters. 

Thirteen-year-olds Ryan and Ameliah are both dealing as best they can with the tragic deaths of their mothers. Ameliah, writing in the present day, has lost both parents and lives with her grandmother. It is far from ideal, but Ameliah is a down-to-earth and sensible girl who knows that she has to put her life back together and move forward. She is quiet at school, but has good friends. Life may have dealt her a dreadful blow, but she somehow has to recover.

Ameliah finds an old audio tape among her mother's possessions, and when she plays it on an ancient cassette recorder, she hears a boy's voice - but what he says is distorted and unclear. Who is this mysterious voice mumbling on the old tape? Does it have any connection to the pain Ameliah is feeling after the death of her parents? If so, how?

Camden keeps the reader guessing about the connection between Ameliah and the voice. Even when the story slips back into the 1990s and the story picks up on teenager Ryan, Camden does not give too much away.

Ryan, still mourning for his mum, lives with his dad and his stepmother. There is also the problem of Nathan, Ryan's new step-brother, an unpleasant bully who takes over the household once he and his mum have moved in. The troubled relationship between Ryan and Nathan, Ryan's entertaining friendship with his best mate Liam, and his adoration of a girl who moves into the neighbourhood all effortlessly mix to make Ryan a very plausible and likeable co-narrator.

This is a story told in alternating chapters by two authentic teenage voices with moving and powerful tales to tell. And Camden's talent as a performance artist shines through, particularly in the stunning dialogue. 

Written with humour and understanding, this is a cleverly structured and very powerful tale. The interplay between Ameliah and Ryan, even at a distance of 20 years, is spot on and never loses its momentum. A novel like this relies on the central characters, and it is obvious that Camden is very much a people person, with a talent for creating characters that readers want to get to know and befriend.

John Millen can be contacted on [email protected]