Poetry Shelf goes YA: Eileen Merriman’s Violet Black

Violet Black, Eileen Merriman, Penguin Books, 2021

I reviewed Pieces of You, Eileen Merriman’s debut YA novel, on Poetry Shelf because it stuck with me on so many levels. Here is an extract:

Just know that this is an acute reading experience. It feels utterly real. It does not smudge the tough stuff. It is kaleidoscopic in both emotion and everyday detail. Detail that animates that lives of two teens. There are countless examples of excellent books on the tough experiences that some teenagers face (drugs, alcohol, abuse, rape, cancer, suicide, the death of a friend or family member) but that is not to say such subject matter is now done and dusted. Far from it.

Eileen writes with such a flair for dialogue, for family circumstances, for teenage struggles and joys. This is the kind of book that will stay at the front of my mind all week and longer – I recommend it highly.

I have quoted from the review because although Pieces of You is an altogether different book (a moving cancer story) – similar comments apply to Violet Black. Characters matter, dialogue matters, real-life detail matters, significant issues matter and you are always held in the grip of a perfectly pitched narrative. Yet Violet Black, the first in Eileen’s Black Spiral YA trilogy, is dystopian fiction. It is set in the near future and its globe-trotting plot travels from New Zealand to Australia and Germany. It features a ravaged planet showing the effects of climate change, the scarcity and cost of food, drones, internet dependencies, closed schools and, most importantly, a plague (a measles-virus mutation).

Violet and Ethan are seventeen, in love, and both in an m-fever coma in hospital. Their love strand is one part of the narrative, but so too are the increasingly sinister questions that touch upon ethics and what is in the best interests of humanity. Violet and Ethan discover they each have a post-viral ability that sees them drawn (forced?) into VORTEX, a group of ‘virally optimised teenagers’. There is no vaccine yet, and there are anti-vaxxers out to destroy research. There is the worrisome ITA, the International Terrorism Agency.

With Eileen’s medical background, the plague presence is utterly convincing. So too is the ability to craft plot, to build relationships and ideas that have a contemporary significance and edge. I am no teenager, and would love to know what they think of the book, but I enter this dystopian space and in Eileen’s hands it feels both utterly real and spikely relevant. I felt bereft when I got to the last page knowing I would have to wait until September 1st for the release of Book 2. When you consider the degree to which our world is under threat, I believe novels like this get the teenage reader thinking. To what degree are choices made in the best interests of the world? Why do we need to be conversant in ethics?

Ideas taking control of a novel at the expense of everything else would weaken its impact. Not so with Violet Black. The novel also delivers the complexity of family relations, the infectiousness of teenage love, a narrative flicker that things may not always be taken at face value. As Violet and Ethan struggle to make sense of what is happening to them, and indeed the world itself, so too do we as readers. Quite frankly I feel that myself some days as I struggle to make sense of all the conflicting and troubling stories on my various news feeds.

I love this book and I can’t wait to read the next one. Violet Black has been optioned by South Pacific Pictures Ltd for a potential TV series. I can see why. This is YA fiction at its glorious life-crackling best, and yes, we are never too old to be seduced by YAF’s wide-ranging charms. We get to experience the way a novel can entertain us and, at the same time, lay down vital challenges that get us thinking and feeling. Sublime.

Penguin Books page

Eileen Merriman’s three young adult novels, Pieces of You, Catch Me When You Fall, and Invisibly Breathing, were finalists in the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2018 and 2019, and all three were Storylines Notable Books. Her fourth young adult novel A Trio of Sophies was published in 2020 to huge critical praise and was also published in Germany. She works full-time as a consultant haematologist at North Shore Hospital.

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