Don’t Turn Around by Michelle Gagnon
Released 1 September 2012 through HarperCollins
ISBN: 9780062102904 (Hardcover)
If you’ve been following my reviews lately, you’ll notice that I’ve been reading a lot of Young Adult fiction; in particular, YA dystopian fiction. Not only was this one of the best YA novels I read in 2012, it was easily one of the best novels I read overall. So many times it seems that YA authors have great ideas but don’t execute them as well as readers hope. Don’t Turn Around is a class above the rest.
A groggy Noa wakes up on an operating table with an IV in her arm. She has no recollection of how she came to be in the empty warehouse, but she quickly discovers stitches on her chest and realises that if she stays where she is, she may never make it out alive. Noa is used to running–orphaned at a young age, the foster system failed her. Now, she stays off the grid and fends for herself. Her composure under pressure allows her to escape… barely. Unable to return home for fear of what (or who) she might find, Noa needs one thing–a laptop. Familiar with the feeling of displacement, Noa picks up a new MacBook Pro and heads to a nearby cafe to try to make sense of her situation. Logging on for the first time, she is horrified to find that three weeks have passed since the last day she remembers.
Not far away, Peter Gregory is having a bad night. His older brother passed away from PEMA, a (fictional, obvs) mysterious disease that only affects teenagers, years ago and his parents are away for the weekend. Peter established /ALLIANCE/ online as an outlet for his inquisitive mind and hacking skills. When he does some seemingly harmless digging into his father’s business, he stumbles across Project Persephone. He is unable to find anything interesting, but before he can turn his attention to other things, his house is broken into and his computer is taken, and an ominous message is left for his parents.
By sheer dumb luck (without which there would be no story), Noa is a regular contributor on /ALLIANCE/ and masquerades online under the screen name Rain. Peter puts out a call for help, and Rain responds. Unaware of their connection, Noa agrees to help Peter look into AMRF, a shady organisation with links to Peter’s parents. A perpetually cold and unable to eat or sleep Noa manages to dig into AMRF’s files and make the connection between herself and Peter. It’s only a matter of time before the people watching Noa realise she is also watching them, and Noa and Peter team up in a deadly race to uncover the truth behind AMRF’s business dealings.
I really enjoyed this book. I was holding my breath without realising it and I lost considerable chunks of time while completely engrossed in the story. Sometimes I find YA dystopian novels that involve conspiracies and cover ups to be completely unbelievable and ridiculous, and it’s a testament to Gagnon’s skill as a writer that not once did I feel like this couldn’t really be happening somewhere. Noa is an exceptional character–she has been likened to Lisbeth Salander from the Millennium trilogy and Noa is what I would imagine a young Lisbeth would have been like if she hadn’t suffered such extreme abuse. Noa is damaged, yes, but Gagnon knew where to draw the line for Don’t Turn Around to be age appropriate. Gagnon’s treatment of the child protection sector is also excellent–Noa’s fictional circumstances no doubt mirror those of countless children in care, and readers are able to sympathise with Noa without resorting to pity. Yes, Noa has had a tough life. Although she is a victim on paper, she is strong and independent and spirited and in no way does she act the role of a victim. She is a well-conceived and ultimately extremely likeable character.
As is Peter, her sheltered but savvy accomplice. Together they are virtually unstoppable and at times they seem to be beating their enemies at their own game. Their antics made me wish I was half as good with computer systems and hacking as they are–the work they are doing is dangerous and risky, but with the greater good in mind, their success could save a myriad of lives and blow the lid off some seriously dodgy stuff.
Let’s be honest: Noa and Peter are no Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. But what Don’t Turn Around lacks in grit, it makes up for with a thrilling story line and non-stop pace that makes Gagnon’s novel simply unmissable.