Ghosted By Emily Barr Penguin, UK ISBN: 978-0241481875 400pp.

In colloquial terms, ‘ghosted’ is when someone cuts off all communication without any explanation. The word is usually used by Gen Z in the context of a digital departure. So when I picked up Ghosted by British travel writer and novelist Emily Barr, I didn’t think very highly of the title, primarily because of how frequently this word is thrown around by my generation.

Adding to my apprehension was the cover featuring a young couple that looked fairly teenaged. I hoped my assumptions for the book would be proven wrong, simply so that, in the future, I would stop myself from judging any book by its cover.

My assumptions were proven wrong, indeed.

Barr is the author of 20 books, five of them being Young Adult novels. However, her most recent work, Ghosted, is — despite all appearances to the contrary — not just another teenage romance with a predictable storyline and sappy writing.

Nestled within a sappy romance that makes a novel almost unbearable at times, is a gritty, worthwhile and page-turning mystery

When the novel begins, it’s a short while before sunrise and 15-year-old Ariel is a wreck, having just stood up to her violent bully of a father. The night before, there had been a falling out in the family and words exchanged between Dad and 19-year-old sister Sasha because, much to his enormous dismay, she is pregnant and has dashed all his hopes of her becoming a doctor like himself.

Dad has now pinned all his expectations on the younger of his two daughters. He wakes her up in the middle of the night to tell her he is leaving, and she has to come with him. Although Ariel has always acquiesced to her father’s demands, tonight she musters up the courage to defy him and decides to stay with Sasha.

Since their mother died a year ago and Sasha is barely an adult, there is an ever-present fear that Ariel will be put into foster care, which adds to the overwhelming anxiety she lugs around, courtesy the constant emotional abuse showered upon her by Daddy Dearest.

At this rock-bottom point in life, Ariel meets Joe. Like her, Joe is also 15 years old. His mother is unavailable, emotionally as well as physically, but at least his father, who runs a children’s nursery, is a jolly man. Joe seems to fit in well at school, but there’s a persistent monotony weighing upon him that makes him slightly frustrated with his life. The day he meets Ariel is the day before he has to leave for France on a school trip — an excursion which he’s not looking forward to at all.

This initial meeting occurs in a disused room at the back of a shopping centre, which Ariel frequents to find some solitude. Joe has been wandering around the shops, trying to shake off his anxiety about the trip to France, when he stumbles across her.

The two teenagers take an immediate liking to each other, chemistry sparking their very first conversation. They have always been awkward and meagre in expression in all their previous interactions with people, so it comes as a relief to find someone who is easy to talk to, with bare honesty about some of the most vulnerable things in their lives.

They exchange phone numbers, but when Ariel tries to contact Joe, she discovers — fairly predictably — that the number he’s given her does not exist. ‘So this is why the book is titled Ghosted,’ I thought, rolling my eyes. So far, so unsurprising. Therefore, imagine the slight piquing of my interest when I read of the teenagers’ second meeting: in a disused room at the back of a shopping centre, a day before Joe has to leave on a school trip to France.

Much to Ariel’s understandable chagrin, Joe acts as if he doesn’t know her and has never met her before. This raises several questions, both for Ariel and the reader. Is Joe a player? A jokester? Does he have amnesia?

If I hadn’t seen a certain Hollywood film — whose own plot has been ‘repeated’ dozens of times (see what I did there? No?) — I would have thought this twist in the tale to be ground-breaking. It’s not. However, what is surprising is that, even though Barr makes ample use of tropes that aren’t new at all, she comes up with a story that is actually highly original.

This far into the book, readers will have enough information to give an appreciative nod to the author’s choice of title, which opens up avenues into far more than one meaning. It is also possible they will assume they know how the story will progress and, more importantly, how it will end.

That would be a mistake, for nestled within the sappy romance that makes the book almost unbearable at times, is a gritty, worthwhile and page-turning mystery.

Throwing caution as well as her long-held anxiety to the wind, Ariel amps up her efforts to maintain a link with Joe. He, for his part, pitches in with all the help he can possibly give her because, by this point, it’s not just about having a friend to hang out with; it’s about uncovering some long-buried secrets and a few very ugly truths.

Part romance, part mystery, with troubled teenagers doing their best to deal with toxic families, Barr’s Ghosted puts an unusual spin on what it means to move on.

The reviewer is a student and freelance writer. She tweets @nawillanelle

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 12th, 2023

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