Book Review: Zac and Mia
Text Publishing (I own a copy)
After the phenomenal success of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, you'd be forgiven for thinking there really was no other way to write about teens with cancer. But for AJ Betts, writing about the C word is a complicated and often humorous process, where the road to universalising terminally ill young adults is not always about heartbreak and lost love. Zac and Mia was the winner of the Text Prize, a competition which seeks out new and exciting work in the young adult genre, and has also published books such as The Minnow. It is a novel which is suitable for younger readers but would also appeal to adults. It is honest, clever and intelligent writing about a difficult subject, and I would argue a more enduring book than John Green's, despite the fuss.
It begins with Zac, who is in hospital to have yet another round of chemo. He's a veteran of the ward, despite begin only 17, and the youngest there. He spends his time playing word puzzles and video games with his mother and chatting to the billions of Facebook friends who have come out of the woodwork since he got sick. Then Mia arrives. She's angry and everyone knows it. She listens to loud Lady Gaga, yells at her mother, and resists the staff. And Zac can't help but wonder about her. They begin to communicate through the walls of their room in a form of morse code- by tapping and hoping the person on the other side understands. Soon they are Facebook friends as well, and Zac is intrigued to see that Mia has not told anyone what is going on with her.
For me, Mia's journey was the most interesting, because she starts the book in this angry, scared place and she should by rights be unlikeable. But because Zac is telling the story, and he likes her, the reader sees the potential for her to be a heroine. His interest in Mia doesn't stop at the purely sexual, although she's a 17 year old girl and he's a 17 year old guy, so it's not totally out of the realm of possibility either, but is first and foremost from curiousity. For so long, Zac's been the only kid on the ward, because he's too old for the Children's Oncology unit, and when someone else his age comes in, he wants to bond. He recognises that she's scared, and frustrated, and reaches out to her and is surprised by what he finds. And because Zac has such a loving support network around him, he's able to then extend his support to Mia, even if she doesn't know how to accept it. Slowly, the trust is built between these two characters, and it's really quite nice the way this happens slowly, and almost by accident. At first, they just talk on Facebook late at night, when they both wake up needing the loo (a side effect of treatment they share) and they provide each other with comfort. The way Betts writes these social media interactions is really genuine, and it's the first time I've seen Facebook in fiction that has felt like real conversations are actually taking place. Facebook is not just a device here, but part of the setting, and a natural part of the character's world. It's really well done. Then their relationship moves into the real world, and Zac provides a literal safe haven for Mia at his house, which is down south somewhere. They have an Olive and baby animal farm, and some of the jobs that are described are so unique and believable that I really wanted to visit. From hitting roo poos with golf clubs to leaving carcasses for the local vixen so she stays away, Zac's home was very real, and his mother and sister were strong maternal forces in his life. His father and his brother didn't feature so much, although the jokes about his brother were very funny.
The book is sectioned in three parts, part one being Zac, with Mia somewhat obscured, part two being And, when they are getting to know each other, and part three being Mia's point of view when Zac is separated from her and she wants to know why. This works really well, because the point of the story is not just Zac's experience or Mia's experience, it's both their experiences and what they can learn from each other.
It's a short book, and it's not as emotionally shattering as The Fault in Our Stars, but it feels like it happens all the time, and I loved it.