It’s hard to start this review without inevitable comparisons to John Green. So, I’ll get it out of the way first thing – I don’t dislike John Green. He’s okay. I tend to find his work a little bit on the flowery, pretentious side – But then, I tend to get a little frustrated if a book doesn’t have a spaceship or a dragon in the first chapter. I’m awkward like that. Anyway, In Bloom was first brought to my attention by Sophie, a fellow Bookseller at the Darlington branch of the big W who shares my love for Teen/YA fiction, as Matthew Crow is her cousin. And it made me cry. Twice. On the train.
Francis is a Fifteen year old intellectual, his sharp wit and sensitive thoughts lost in the bleak wasteland of Tyne & Wear. Or at least, that’s how he sees himself. In reality, he’s a fairly standard, melodramatic teenager with a passion for misunderstood musicians, intellectual books and films from the 80’s. He lives with his single Mum, a strong, forthright woman, who refuses to suffer fools – except when Chris, her eldest son, stops in from University to stock up on free parental food packages. Francis doesn’t have many friends, preferring to spend his time with his brother and his university friends (namely Fiona, who he has a massive crush on). He knows he’s destined for bigger things as soon as he can get out of school and into the wider world. But then a spanner is thrown into the gears of Francis Wootton’s path to greatness. A powerful single word that has the ability to evoke emotions with just four short syllables: Leukaemia. Suffering fatigue, headaches and weight loss, Francis is soon placed onto a Cancer Ward to undergo Chemotherapy, where he meets Kelly and Paul, two fellow patients with whom he has absolutely nothing in common. Them Amber arrives on the ward, streaking into the tedious silence like a firework in an old people’s home. She’s snide, sarcastic, witty and sharp, and Francis falls head over heels in teenage love with her. The two of them shave each other’s heads, watch their favourite films together, and marvel at the strange way their very different families interact during visiting hours. Together, the two of them discover a great deal about themselves as people, and face the battle against cancer hand in hand together.
Where so much teen fiction makes huge, outrageous statements full of flowery metaphors, In Bloom is a testament to Matthew Crow’s Northern upbringing – The characters are so sharply real, honest and heartfelt that I connected with them on a very basic, fundamental level that I sometimes struggle to manage with other contemporary teen fiction. Maybe it’s my own Northern upbringing (North Yorkshire, but still) that allowed me to smile wryly when reading about certain aspects and locations mentioned that I remember quite fondly myself. I think more than anything, though, I associated with Francis in an immediately because of his soft, sensitive nature, his melodramatic tendencies, and his solid, friendship with his older brother – all huge parts of my own teen years (okay, and my “adult” years as well). He really reminded me of Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, an intelligent, introspective young man with a tendency to over think and dwell, with a healthy splash of the haplessness of Adrian Mole, as he comes into contact with love, sex and adult life for the first real time. Chris, Francis’ older brother is brilliant, equal parts cheeky rogue and incredibly understanding. He knows exactly when to crack a joke, have a go, and when to just not say anything, understanding Francis’ need to avoid conflict. I think their relationship reminded me intensely of my own relationship with my older brother, so I found anything involving the two of them funny, touching and relatable. Amber is perfect. She’s a full, bright, aggressive girl who wears her heart on her sleeve, but keeps her deepest emotions hidden behind a full cloak of swagger and bravado. Her witty, devil-may-care attitude makes her leap off the page, and her softer moments stop her from coming off as arrogant. She’s confident without being overly so, she’s stronger than everyone around her, even though she’s the ill one. Her every line brought emotions to my brain; laughter, sadness, anger… She’s a brilliantly rounded, fully realised person, and one I hope for Matthew’s sake is completely fictional. Francis mum is also absolutely phenomenal – a powerful woman with so many plates to keep spinning, and yet she never once lets any of them fall. Throughout the book, she’s subjected to angry parents, an absentee father, a first attempt at petty crime, leukaemia, and a whole lot more, and she takes it all with a sharp tongue, a no-nonsense attitude and a huge heart full of caring and love. She’s everything you want in a mum, and again her single minded determination to give her two sons the best possible really reminded me of my own mum, who would probably kneecap a man for looking at me or my brother a bit funny.
Matthew has a great writing style, using pop culture references mixed into his dialogue and metaphors in a way that would make Joss Whedon proud. One of my favourite examples is when describing the death of Francis’ twin sister that happened when he was a young child:
“Emma died on a day trip to the seaside. She only ran off for a few seconds. She was there one minute, and the next there was just a huge red truck in her place, like she was a Transformer. Only a rubbish Transformer that made everyone cry and Mum howl.”
When I read that, I laughed and felt the bleakness of that seaside day all at once. In Bloom is full of dark, humorous little plays on metaphors and similes like that, and maybe it’s an acquired taste, but for me it’s much more down to Earth a real than some of the work of authors who try a lot harder to sound more profound. The book made me laugh out loud more times than I can count, and made me cry my entire heart out in loud, undignified sobs on the 7:30am Transpennine Express to Durham. One line in particular completely destroyed me, and it’s such a simple line… But with spoilers. I’ve redacted the name.
“A year older than [Character] would ever be.”
And my heart broke clean in two.
Want an honest, stark, funny, heart warming novel to read after The Fault In Our Stars? I can’t recommend In Bloom strongly enough. I always try to avoid calling anything “Life Affirming”, but this book kinda is. If you can’t take my word for it, Matt Haig is even quoted on the cover, and his word is much weightier than mine.
Until Next Time.
P.S. You can follow Matthew on Twitter here. I recommend it, he’s a lovely, funny chap.
P.P.S. This is the only book I’ve read to use a merkin as a plot point. Kudos.