Hitting just the right note between funny and sad has always been a testing literary exercise, one which has often separated good writers from those not so good.
Natasha Farrant can count herself amongst the gifted writers who can do it… and with style.
The Diaries of Bluebell Gadsby: After Iris, her bittersweet teen novel about a family trying and failing to cope with a terrible tragedy, is so perfectly pitched that you will be laughing behind the hand that only seconds ago wiped away a surreptitious tear.
Star of this beautiful and moving little story, aimed at the age ten plus group, is Bluebell Gadsby whose dysfunctional, and yet in many ways recognisably typical, family life unfolds through diary entries and from behind the video lens of a camera she was given for her 13th birthday.
Bluebell, or Blue as she is known to her mum, dad, sisters Flora and Jasmine and brother Twig, is living with the death of her identical twin Iris three years ago and would appear at first glance to be handling it rather better than her flighty parents.
But nothing is what it seems in Farrant’s heartwarmingly humorous and profoundly moving novel, a terrific follow-up to her powerful young adult debut, The Things We Did for Love, set in occupied France, which was longlisted for both the Carnegie Awards and the Branford Boase Award.
Blue and her family live in London, or ‘that stinkhole’ as grandma calls it. Well, Blue and her siblings have a home there … the truth is that mum and dad seem to spend most of their time away now which is why Zoran, their cheerful new male au pair from Bosnia, has moved in.
They are a family immersed in ‘keeping busy.’ Dad is working out of town and rarely sees any of them, mum is desperately travelling the world, 16-year-old Flora changes her hair colour every day while Jasmine, aged eight, and 10-year-old Twig spend most of the time with their pet rats.
As for Blue, she hides behind her video camera because if you don’t like what you see through the viewfinder, you can change it or switch it off. ‘You just say goodbye world. Time to go. Like dying, but not quite so final.’
They are all desperately escaping the reality that Blue’s twin Iris is dead. For mum, work is the only place where she doesn’t think about her daughter and dad has buried himself away in academia.
So into their lives comes au pair Zoran – a ‘happy presence’ for them all says mum when what she’s really talking about is Iris and her ‘unhappy absence’ – and Joss, the enigmatic new boy next door who sets Blue’s heart aflutter and spells trouble for them all…
Farrant’s inspired use of an original combination of video transcripts and diary musings captures all the repressed grief and denial of the Gadsby family as they each play out their pain through histrionics, eccentric obsessions and outbursts of pent-up anger.
High on raw emotion, poignant observation and moments of sheer laugh-out-loud farce, After Iris is the first of what promises to be a brilliant new series about the adventures and misadventures of the luscious and lovable Gadsby family.
(Faber, paperback, £6.99)