Fascinating tale of troubled teen

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 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. 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’.

The result is a taut adventure, and Pitcher captures the painful emotions that engulf Zoe (not least that of infatuation) when she falls for Aaron and Max.

As the bemused girl 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 pause only to nag her about exam grades.

As she looks at their lives, Zoe realises that adults, too, have their own guilty secrets.

There is a sadness to this excellent book, because you understand that Zoe (her pen name) has had to face up to life sooner than is good.

Indeed, one of the most touching scenes in the novel is when Zoe is alone with Max (the younger brother) and she teases him after 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 tomato ketchup and mash potatoes. “It’s sunrise on my plate and the sausage thinks it’s lovely,” she says.

It’s a moving and ultimately compassionate tale. To be human is to err, after all.

© The Daily Telegraph

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