By Martin Chilton for The Daily Telegraph
When he was nearly 90, Greek playwright Sophocles was asked whether he was dismayed by the decline of his sex drive. Sophocles replied that, on the contrary, it was like “being unchained from a lunatic”.
Fifteen-year-old Zoe, the heroine of Annabel Pitcher’s new young adult novel, Ketchup Clouds, is at the other end of life’s spectrum. She is just starting to discover the power of attraction, and the heartache that can sometimes come with the madness of desire.
Pitcher’s debut novel, My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece, rightly earned nominations for numerous awards, winning the Branford Boase Award, among others. Expectations may have been raised but they are met in fine style with Ketchup Clouds.
The premise is strong. Zoe has fallen for two brothers, a love triangle that has devastating consequences. The only person she feels safe to tell about her terrible secret is Stuart Harris, a convicted murderer. The guilt-ridden teenager hides in the shed, eats a jam sandwich and then pours out her heart in ink. Through her letters to a man on death row in a Texas jail, we learn her tale of love and betrayal. He remains a silent voice but one of the many interesting small details is the way that over the course of the 15 months of letters, her way of addressing him changes from “Dear Mr Harris” to “My dear Stu”.
Pitcher captures the painful emotions that engulf Zoe when she falls for Aaron and Max. As she struggles to cope with her feelings, she is also trying to make sense of a family in turmoil. Pitcher’s tale of troubled family life is deftly done. Her parents, in financial trouble, row incessantly and nag her about grades.
There is a sadness to this excellent book. Zoe (her pen name) has had to face up to life sooner than is good. One of the touching scenes in the novel is when she is alone with Max and she teases him for finding a puzzle under his bed. “Proof that the Mighty Max Morgan is a secret geek,” she jokes. But they do the puzzle together and have fun. It’s a moment of children being children, something all too rare in modern life.
And the Ketchup Clouds? Well, they come from the way Zoe’s sister, Dot, plays with her food. “It’s sunrise on my plate and the sausage thinks it’s lovely,” she says.
It’s a moving and ultimately highly compassionate tale.
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