Karen West, Living Voice, Hybrid Publishers, March 2019, 208 pp., RRP $19.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781925272871
Living Voice is a highly engaging read for teens, around the topics of family, illness, death and organ donation.
The characters immediately come across as authentic, especially the narrator, Steph – a mature young adult, displaying a strong sense of agency, and realistic emotional behaviour for her age. The setting is in the neighbourhood of Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney (Steph’s father is head vet there) and also the Palm Beach area further north, and the story takes us effectively from high summer to mid winter, evoking the environment and weather to useful effect.
In her senior school years, Steph has a strong group of friends and is an accomplished artist. As her mother is diagnosed with serious heart disease and awaits a transplant, Steph battles with her own anger and sadness, as well as with mundane annoyances, such as her father’s terrible cooking. Keen on a boy from school at the beginning of the book, she unexpectedly falls for Richard, who she sees at the hospital when her mother is first ill. Richard is grieving for his brother who has died in an accident. An old friend, who lost his mother a couple of years earlier, turns up, not quite out of the blue – Steph’s aunt has engineered that – and both boys, and a wider group of friends, give Steph support as well as increasing her growing understanding of grief.
The author has managed to accommodate all these elements, which might have felt contrived, into a story that holds interest, suspense, and reads authentically. The major issue of the novel is organ donation, and especially from a young person’s point of view, yet the book succeeds firstly on its own terms as simply a good read.
The Living Voice of the title refers to a website where young people can research and register their own decision regarding organ donation. Steph and her friends set this up in the novel, but design students of TAFE NSW Western Sydney have done it for real at www.livingvoice.com.au
Reviewed by Marita Thompson