Stones tells the story of Coo, a teenager living in Brighton with her parents. The family is struggling to get their lives back on track after the death of Coo’s older brother, an abusive alcoholic. Coo is gradually slipping into a downward spiral, isolating herself from her parents and truanting from school, until an encounter with an alcoholic tramp, Banks, sparks up an unlikely friendship.
The writing is very good and Polly Johnson obviously knows her craft. The story is set in Brighton, a city I know quite well, and her writing was so evocative that at times it was like I was actually there. I felt the subject matter was very original and was dealt with sensitively. There are a lot of YA books that deal with bereavement, but very few that feature a protagonist in a situation like Coo, with her accompanying sense of guilt and relief. Coo was an interesting character and you got a real sense of her grief mixed with guilty relief at her brother’s death.
I did have a couple of issues with this book. Firstly, I felt her parents weren’t very well fleshed out. There’s a scene where Coo is reminiscing about one horrible afternoon where her brother tried to throttle her in front of their dad, but their dad just sat and did nothing to stop it. This didn’t ring true for me. No matter how much you are trying to save one of your children from a horrible disease like alcoholism, you wouldn’t stand by while they attacked your other child. No way.
I also had problems with the tramps. Where I used to live, there was a tramp who’d sit on the park bench all day drinking Special Brew and shouting at people. Every morning when I passed him, he’d shout ‘Lady on a bike!’ at me (because I am a lady and I was riding a bike). I’d always shout ‘Morning!’ back at him and be on my way. Then one morning, instead of shouting ‘Lady on a bike!’ at me, Special Brew Tramp threw a rock at me. I fell off my bike and had to have five stitches in my scalp.
Tramps are unstable. This is what you might call a Fact.
The tramps in Stones are miles more horrible than Special Brew Tramp, but Coo keeps going back to them and hanging out with them, even after they threaten her with violence and she suspects that one of them might be behind a spate of attacks on young women in the area. She keeps trying to save Banks, even though he clearly doesn’t want to be saved. He uses her as a source of money and food and steals her mother’s ruby ring when she invites him into her house for a bath. I get that the guilt over her brother’s death is the driving factor behind her behaviour, but I just kept wanting to shake her and tell her to give it up.
In the end, for me, the writing was what saved Stones and helped me to ignore the issues I had with it. I will certainly be looking out for more work by Polly Johnson in the future.