Shortlisted for the 2016 YA Book Prize
Concentr8 starts with an interesting premise. What if the majority of young people were given regular doses of the type of behaviour-altering drugs prescribed for sufferers of ADHD in order to pacify and control them, and then, for reasons of politics or economy, the drugs were removed? What happens is that London goes wild, with riots and lootings akin to those of 2011. But one small group of teenagers do something different. They head for the office of the mayor and they take a random office worker hostage. Most of the group have no idea why they’re doing this. The ringleader, Blaze, may not even know himself. But now, rather than being ignored and kept in their place, the group have the attention not just of the media but also of the man in power: the mayor.
We see the action through the eyes of each of the five teenagers and also through the adults who are involved in the plot: the hostage, the mayor, the police negotiator and a journalist who sees the connection between the withdrawal of Concentr8 and the taking of the hostage. Each of the voices is strong and believable; each has his or her own agenda. More than any of the others, we stay with Troy, best friend of the group’s leader Blaze, caught up in this thing that he doesn’t understand the purpose of. Concentr8 is Troy’s tragedy.
For me, the adult characters are a problem. They allow us to see how the rest of the world views Troy, Blaze and the others, and how these kids are, on the one hand, nothing more than a nuisance to be pushed out of the way to most of them, and, on the other hand, pawns in their games of self-advancement. All this made sense, but drew me out of the world of the teenagers, so that the story seemed less about them than about the machinations of the mayor. In YA literature, the teen protagonist is always central, so it jarred to have so much of the story told from an adult point of view, and not even concerning that adult’s interactions with the teens, but their own concerns.
The blurb calls Concentr8 ‘a wild satire’, one review says it’s full of ‘heart, hope and humanity’ and another that it ‘shimmers with heat, anger and fear’. I’m not convinced. It wasn’t funny enough or satirical enough or extreme enough. And mostly it just made me sad. It’s too close to reality to work as satire for me. By giving us quotations from real papers and books relating to ADHD and by depicting contemporary London and contemporary teenagers, William Sutcliffe makes the situation too close to the way things actually are and thus too subtle to work in as satire. I’m not sure what his intention is or who he’s addressing. The book is about the dangers of over-medicating or unnecessarily medicating people in order to control them. But what does it tell us about that? Only that it’s happening now and that it’s a way to control people who pose potential problems to society by those who are in charge. But don’t we already know that? The point is perhaps that rather than controlling people in this way so that they do not cause trouble in society, people should be helped to lead fulfilling lives which will mean that they have to need to cause trouble. Perhaps that is where we are left at the end, when Troy is almost looking forward to his life in prison with its three meals a day and every day the same.
I’m not entirely sure why this novel is on the list for the 2016 Young Adult Book Prize. It seems too flawed for that. I suspect it may only be there in order to demonstrate the wide scope of young adult literature – ‘Look, we’ve got satire! And poetry! And issues!’– Too cynical? What do you think?
More to Read!
In the lead-up to the 2016 YA Book Prize, we’re reviewing all the books on the shortlist. Visit us every week for a new review.
Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French?
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