“Ketchup Clouds” is Annabel Pitcher’s follow-up novel to her lauded debut “My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece”, and it just this month won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Young Adult novel. Indeed, as the best young adult novels do, “Ketchup Clouds” explores universal teenage feelings through one teen’s specific experience. In “Ketchup Clouds”, Annabel Pitcher employs an epistolary structure for an intriguing spin on the coming-of-age tale so predominant in young adult fiction. The protagonist, using the pseudonym “Zoe”, writes letters to a “Dear Mr Harris”, a death row inmate. Zoe’s own confession of guilt is teased out through her correspondence with this convicted murderer. While this epistolary framework is commonplace in literature (see Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and Lionel Shriver’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin”), the use of a criminal as the recipient of the narrator’s messages seems innovative. Yet at times, unfortunately, this structure feels more like a gimmick. The parallels between the two characters – the man who killed his wife (whom Zoe refers to as “dear Stu” as the two gradually ostensibly become familiarized), and the guilt-ridden teenager – could have been expanded upon for a much more profound rumination on redemption and the loss of innocence. Unfortunately, we never hear from Mr Harris: his character remains a device, a mere addressee at the top of Zoe’s letters. While the fact that Mr Harris is the only person to whom Zoe feels she can express her dark secret demonstrates to the reader the protagonist’s intense feelings of guilt, it seems a shame not to explore the bond between the killer and the kid further. Does he reply? What does he think of her predicament? Is Zoe’s level of trust in her dear Stu reciprocated? Perhaps curiosity killed the cat, but I couldn’t help but feel this element of the novel would have proved a little more interesting than the actual narrative.
On a superficial level “Ketchup Clouds” shares similarities with books like Anne Cassidy’s “Looking for JJ” and Jonathan Trigell’s “Boy A”, both of which also deal with young adults searching for identity following mistakes made at a young age. The epistolary nature of the novel also led me to draw comparisons with Shriver’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin”. Through Zoe’s stream of consciousness-style narration (which actually seems a little too child-like for a fifteen year old – “FYI”) and her romantic entanglements, we are reminded countless times that Zoe is very young. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that “Ketchup Clouds” at times becomes bogged down in its soap opera-esque love triangle. Perhaps this is a bias on account of personal taste: I could have done with more about Zoe’s guilt and the aftermath of her crime, and far less of her hmming and ahhhing about which boy she fancies more. Zoe is certainly far less complex than Kevin, or even his mother, and the book suffers for it. Pitcher is, nevertheless, a master of suspense and of the dripping tap narrative. Although the reader doesn’t discover the truth behind the death Zoe is implicated in until almost the very close of the novel, the story doesn’t drag on. The author expertly tantalizes the reader by revealing details about the nature of Zoe’s crime excruciatingly slowly, keeping the reader in the dark until almost the last possible moment. While one might imagine this method might invite anti-climactic feelings, the final revelation is satisfying enough to avoid being characterized as a cop-out.
Ultimately I welcome any attempt to break free of genre constraints and to revitalize well-tread literary territory (in this case: the pits and falls of growing up). Pitcher’s take on the trials of adolescence is refreshingly inventive. To explore teenage life through the eyes of a teenage killer is to explore a very narrow teenage experience; yet the feelings of isolation, guilt, disassociation, and confusion are still experiences any adolescent can relate to. Doesn’t everyone feel at times that they’re hiding their real self from the world, afraid of what might happen if someone discovers who they really are?