Finding a Voice by Kim Hood review

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In the run-up to the announcement of the UK YA Book Prize I’m reading each of the books on the shortlist. For more details about my reading challenge and the shortlist click here.

Jo could never have guessed that the friendship she so desperately craves would come in the shape of a severely disabled boy. He can’t even speak. Maybe it is because he can’t speak that she finds herself telling him how difficult it is living with her eccentric, mentally fragile mother. Behind Chris’ lopsided grin and gigantic blue wheelchair is a real person — with a sense of humour, a tremendous stubborn streak and a secret he has kept from everyone. For a while it seems life may actually get better. But as Jo finds out just how terrible life is for Chris, and as her own life spirals out of control, she becomes desperate to change things for both of them. In a dramatic turn of events, Jo makes a decision that could end in tragedy. This is the story of how an unusual friendship unlocks the words that neither knew they had.

Before I started to read this book I had no idea what it was about – I hadn’t even read the blurb – so I had no expectations whatsoever. A few hours later I put it down, finished, and took a deep breath as I resurfaced from the wonderful story I had just been immersed in. I want to start this review by saying thank you, Kim Hood, for writing this book because reading it is a truly enriching experience, and three cheers for you, for writing about the people whose stories are seldom told.

First we meet Jo, a thirteen-year-old who lives with her single mother, who suffers from mental health problems. Her one goal in life is to make sure she does everything to ensure that today isn’t a bad day for her mother – because when days are bad things can quickly spiral out of control. My heart immediately went out to Jo. She has led an isolated life, unable to make friends because nobody wants their children to play with ‘that girl with the weird mother’. What an awful but painfully true portrait of society’s reaction to mental illness. She doesn’t wallow in self-pity, though. She just gets on with it, her only wish being that she could make just one true friend.

Things start to look up for Jo when she meets Sarah in her science class and is invited over to her house after school. But then, heartbreakingly, her unexpectedly late return home coincides with her mother tipping once again into her psychosis – and of course poor Jo blames herself, as always. Her mother’s latest episode leads to Jo having sessions with the school psychologist, which in turn leads to Jo volunteering to help out in the Special Education branch of the school. It starts out as a way to pass her excruciatingly lonely lunch hours and turns into a lifesaver for Jo when she meets Chris.

There follows one of the most wonderful friendships that I’ve ever read about in fiction – it is truly unique. Chris, who has cerebral palsy, is wheelchair bound and has no way of communicating – or so Jo is told when she is shown the ropes of how to feed Chris his lunch each day. Somehow, this makes Jo feel able to open up to Chris about her life and problems like she never has to anyone before. And Chris listens. Jo is convinced that Chris understands more than people realise and sets out to find a way to help him communicate. The most exciting thing about this is that while Jo is trying to help Chris, Chris is actually helping her more than she realises.

The way Kim Hood brings Chris to life as a character is incredible – without saying a word he feels real, he feels like he matters. Jo often comments on how Chris’s carers and handlers talk about him as if he isn’t there – through Jo’s eyes he becomes ever more visible and with her we start to see past the wheelchair. I love the way that friendship is handled in this book and shown to be a two-way street – while Jo needs a friend more than anything, her friend needs her too.  Realising this is the first step towards Jo forming meaningful relationships.

Jo is immediately likeable for her compassion for others, and yet terribly naïve in her single-mindedness and how she thinks that one big drastic action can solve everything. I definitely remember feeling that way, and who, as a thirteen-year-old, didn’t fantasise about changing everything by doing something dramatic? In that sense she goes on a real journey, as she comes to learn that things are never that straightforward, and while things can’t be made perfect, they can be made better. She may not love her home situation, but she does love her mother. Having a new friend helps her to remember the good things – they share a quirky, spontaneous sort of mother-daughter bond that can never be replaced.

Alongside the theme of friendships is the one of ‘finding a voice’ –  in the literal sense, but also in the sense of being yourself rather than being your problems. Jo needs to realise that she can’t do everything on her own, and she can’t fix everything. She needs to find her voice and use it to ask for help when needed. Anyone who has ever felt overwhelmed and alone with the problems they are facing should read this book – it will lighten your darkest days.

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  1. Top Ten Stories That Needed to be Told | library4delinquents

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