Friday, January 11, 2008

Looking for J.J.

What if you'd done something horrible in your youth? Something really horrible? Worse than shoplifting. Worse than lying to your friends or cheating on a school test. What if you'd killed someone? Another child, actually. If you'd done something like that could you ever expect to be forgiven? Could you ever expect to be loved?

Anne Cassidy considers these questions in Looking for J.J. The novel starts with the release of notorious child killer, Jennifer Jones, from the British juvenile facility where she has spent the last six years of her life. In that time Jennifer has taken on a new identity. No one connects "Alice Tully" with the specter of Jennifer Jones, a ten-year-old girl who murdered a friend in cold blood. Only her social worker and the warden of the juvenile center know "Alice's" true identity. But reporters and private detectives are stirring up the muck. The tabloids are foaming at the mouth to get the scoop on J'J's whereabouts. They see Jennifer as a monster. Little do they know that she's a different person now--or at least, she'd like to be. "Alice" is quiet, withdrawn, and most of all repentant. She deeply regrets what happened six years ago when "three children walked away from the cottages on the edge of town toward Berwick Waters [and] later that day, only two of them came back. . ."

This book appealed to me from the instant I picked it up. The ghoulish part of me immediately glommed onto the the creepiness of the plot and the law-abiding part of me wanted to see how the author would handle the themes of regret and repentance. (But I was mostly interested in the creepy plot, truth be told.) So, I was a little disappointed that the book began so slowly. After a fairly gripping first chapter, the book progresses through Alice's current life, taking us through her days at the cafe where she works, showing us her relationship with her controlling older boyfriend, explaining to us how Alice lives in fear of being exposed. This was all neccesary to understand, but it felt like a lot of the same information was getting repeated, and I found myself growing restless. Luckily, I kept reading and finally reached the point in the book where Alice begins flashing back to the events leading up to the murder. At this point I couldn't get enough of the book. I was eating lunch and trying to read and I had to choose between one activity or the other since I couldn't both hold the book open and shovel food into my mouth at the same time. I chose the book. There you have it! Giving up food for story is all the review a sensible person needs. (But in case you want more, allow me to ramble on. . .)

The flashback scenes were wonderful. The author sets up a totally believable string of events, culminating in tragedy. I wish the author had begun with the flashbacks because these were the chapters in which I felt I really understood Jennifer's motivations and psyche. Also, the story of Jennifer's lonely childhood with her mother, a washed-up model suffering from depression, made for generally better story than the chapters that belong to "Alice." One part couldn't exist without the other, of course, but the Jennifer parts were quite good to read.

This book won the Booktrust Teenage Prize and was short-listed for the Whitbread Children's Book Award and the Carnegie Medal. I guess I wasn't quite as taken with it as these prize committees. Although I liked it and would recommend it, I felt like the author could have explored the themes a little more deeply. The book ended quite abruptly (at least to me), and I was disappointed that the main character never met up with the other surviving child from the incident, nor really came to terms (or even began to come to terms) with her less-than-stellar mother. In essence, I enjoyed the novel, but I saw potential for even more to have come out of it, so I was a bit disappointed not to get it. Still, a worthy read.

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