Puffin, 2012, ISBN 978-0-141-34571-0
Here’s a tremendous novel that packs a powerful emotional punch. Hazel, the sixteen year-old narrator and chief protagonist, has had cancer since the start of her teens. An experimental drug has bought her extra time, but she has always known her disease is terminal. Permanently tethered to an oxygen tank, she leads a very restricted life, her one regular outing the soul-destroying Cancer Kids Support Group. Hazel’s mother sees her daughter’s depression as a side-effect of her cancer, while in her view it’s a side-effect of dying. Her response to her mother’s plea that she get out more, make friends and live her life is typically robust: ‘If you want me to be teenager, don’t send me to Support Group. Buy me a fake ID so I can go to clubs, drink vodka and take pot.’
Then hot-looking Augustus Waters attends a Support Group meeting, and everything changes. As they get to know each other Hazel’s frame of reference shifts. When he asks for her story and she starts relating the history of her illness, he interrupts her: ‘No, not your cancer story. Your story.’ They spend more and more time together as their interest in each other grows. Hazel even tells Augustus about the book that means more to her than any other, by a novelist who she feels understands dying. Augustus uses his cancer wish to arrange a trip for both of them to Amsterdam, to meet him. Peter Van Houten spectacularly fails to live up to their expectations, but the trip is amazing. Hazel realises she is in love. Though Augustus’s amputated leg and her oxygen tube are obstacles, she joyfully loses her virginity.
But cancer is cancer, and tragedy awaits.
A devastating book, but uplifting too. Hazel and Augustus refuse to let cancer define them, and embrace all that life and love offer. They are great heroes - brave, clever, warm and funny, but also frequently angry, afraid and upset. The other characters too are well drawn and believable, especially their friend Isaac, who loses his sight to cancer, Hazel’s flawed parents, and the preposterous Van Houten. Despite the heartbreak, there is lots of humour here. Anyone who enjoyed Before I Die by Jenny Downham will love this. Highly recommended, for adults as well as teenagers.