A jam-packed YA sequel from Cecelia Ahern full of twists and turns
YA Fiction: Perfect, Cecelia Ahern, HarperCollins Children's Books, hbk, 432 pages, €9.74
Cecelia Ahern's first book for teenagers, Flawed, was published last year and became a bestseller. Set in a dystopian world, it features black teenager Celestine North whose life changes dramatically when she helps a 'Flawed' man on the bus. She herself becomes 'Flawed', branded for life with large Fs seared on to her skin. After a series of escapades involving imprisonment and a young man called Carrick (our brooding YA hero - more on this in a moment), she goes on the run.
The sequel, Perfect, picks up where Flawed left off. Celestine has just turned 18 and is hiding out on her granddad's farm. From the start, Ahern is at pains to remind us of Celestine's 'secret' sixth brand on the base of her spine, stamped there by the leader of the draconian 'Guild', Judge Crevan, who to add to the complications is also the father of her ex-boyfriend, Art. Crevan demands perfection from his subjects, and anyone who displays one of the seven deadly 'sins': self-deprecation, self-destruction, martyrdom, stubbornness, greed, arrogance and impatience, is branded with the letter F.
At the beginning of Perfect, Ahern deftly summarises the first book and reflects on Celestine's attraction to Carrick, who has all the characteristics of the brooding YA hero trope. Celestine says: "His black hair is closely shaven; his neck, shoulders, everything wide, muscular and strong… His cheekbones and jaw are perfectly defined, all hard edges… Carrick's eyes meet mine in the mirror and my stomach flips."
(For more on brooding YA heroes, @broodingYAhero on Twitter is highly amusing with quips such as, "After this book ends, the main female character will have no family, friends or career plans. But she's now dating me, so… success!")
However, Celestine is no man's puppet and learns to trust her own instincts when it comes to relationships, and most especially the mysterious Carrick.
When the Guild's search party, the Whistleblowers, descend on the farm, Celestine manages to escape. Carrick finds her and takes her to a factory which employs and harbours Flawed people. Here we are introduced to Carrick's estranged family. With a clever nod to the Magdalene Laundries, children of Flawed parents are taken from their parents to be reared by Perfect families, which was Carrick's fate. While at this factory, Celestine figures out that her sixth branding is the key to bringing down Judge Craven and the Guild. There is video footage of Craven wielding the branding iron and giving Celestine her unprecedented sixth Flawed mark, without the required anaesthetic, an illegal act that makes him look like the cruel, crazed dictator that he is.
Celestine and Carrick must find the USB stick the clip is saved on, and get the video into the right hands, turning the political tide towards the emerging 'Vital' party and its principles of compassion and logic.
At times Ahern flies through scenes so quickly that it's hard to keep up. Characters are introduced and discarded as the plot dictates. We see little of my favourite character from the first book, Celestine's sister Juniper, and Celestine seems to have lost all contact with her friends and family.
Towards the end of the book there is a rousing firecracker of a scene, inspired by Nazi Germany's treatment of the Jews where the Flawed are rounded up and made to march together in red robes, a striking image that has blockbuster movie written all over it. Both Flawed and Perfect are highly visual books and given Ahern's agent, Marianne Gunn O'Connor's strong track record in Hollywood (PS I Love You and the forthcoming Darkmouth animated film by Shane Hegarty), it's surely only a matter of time until we see Celestine's story on the big screen. Movie rights have already been optioned by Warner Brothers.
With Perfect, Ahern grabs her reader by the throat and never lets go. Originally planned as a trilogy, she has packed two books into one.
Often publishers and movie producers demand the opposite, teasing out a story in an unnecessary manner, and she is to be commended for keeping the readers' interests at heart.
In a recent blog, Ahern explained: "At first, I thought the books would be a trilogy, mainly because it felt like the natural familiar decision, but when I was developing the story, I felt that the best way for me to tell the stories was in two novels. When I sent the outline of Perfect to my editor, he wondered if it would all fit into one book and questioned whether there should be a third, but I knew that I wanted a meaty, jam-packed novel filled with surprises and twists and turns, with plenty of content, and a conclusion to Celestine's journey."
Let's hope Ahern has enjoyed this foray into YA fiction and continues to write for teens. Based on Flawed and Perfect, she has a lot to say to young people about politics, class and our uncertain future.
Sarah Webb is the Writer in Residence in Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown and a children's book commentator