First, an admission: there is an unwritten law of the universe that, given that there are so few of us, if your surname is Darnton you and I are related. I’m not sure whether Tracy Darnton is aware of this, especially as we are only relatives through marriage, but nevertheless it is true, and it is also true that I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up had it not been for her surname. It is a long time since I was active in the world of children’s literature and I’ve rather lost touch with what’s now being published. The Rules makes me regret that reminding me, as it does, that the best of YA literature deals with complex and important issues.
Approaching eighteen, Amber Fitzpatrick finds herself, perhaps for the first time in her life, in an almost settled situation. Having worked her way through several foster placements, she is now at a boarding school and studying towards the qualification she hopes will give her a place at university. However, her fragile piece of mind is shattered when her social worker, Julie, tells her that they have received a letter from her father.
Amber’s father is a Prepper: that is somebody who prepares themselves for the disaster that they are certain is just around the corner. This could be anything from an alien invasion to nuclear warfare, perhaps an enormous natural disaster or even a pandemic. Such individuals stockpile not only food but also medical supplies, water purification tablets, lighting systems, the list could go on. They also, in many cases, have a list of draconian rules and, until she breaks free, it is the rules that her father has established that have controlled Amber’s life and destroyed that of her mother. Terrified that her father is about to lay claim to her again, Amber strikes out on her own and makes for a Northumberland holiday cottage owned by a couple who once fostered her. Here she runs into her complete antithesis, Josh, with whom she once shared a foster placement. If Josh has a rule in life it is to have no rules. All these rules in society we’re meant to follow, to know our place, I don’t have to do it any more, he claims. Together they set out to find Centurion House, established as a survival outpost in case of whatever cataclysm might first strike. Here, Amber hopes to find supplies and money that will enable her to out run her father, whom she is sure will try and take her back into his custody.
The irony, of course, is that it is the very rules that her father has taught her and the skills that she has learnt in preparation for disaster that enable her not only to survive but also, for a considerable time, to outrun both him and social services. Indeed, it is in part because she ignores her own instincts and allows Josh to take her to hear her father speak, that she is eventually tracked down.
Had I read this novel a year ago I would now be discussing as the central theme the idea that we all live by rules of one sort or another. As Amber comments when the police and social services ultimately try to pick up the pieces, they’re following their procedures, their rules. What matters about any rules is the ultimate goal of those who devise and implement them and who, consequently, benefits as a result. However, it’s impossible now to read this book without doing so in the light of the current pandemic and I suspect that how readers react to it will to some extent be defined by their response to the rules laid out by governments around the world in their reaction to the Covid-19 crisis. What is more, any individual’s understanding of the novel might well change from day to day. What struck me most forcefully today was the distinction that Amber draws between the Preppers in England and those in America. However, I finished this book at the very beginning of May on a day when I both read about the general consensus in England that for the moment some form of lockdown needs to continue and listened to protesters in Michigan demanding the right to be allowed to go out and do precisely what they want now, this minute. By the time you read this, and I’ll post it to coincide with the early July publication, there may well be other, more immediate parallels that I would want to draw because, if the novel makes clear anything, it is that we simply don’t know from one day to the next what we might be called upon to face and that there are times when, at the very least, being prepared for the unexpected is not a bad idea.
With thanks to Little Tiger Group and NetGalley for the review copy.