Published by Indigo
Zoe Collins has a dark and terrible secret that she dares confess to no one. But one day she hears of a criminal on death row who knows all about secrets. And lies. And betrayal. Desperate to confide in someone, Zoe picks up a pen.
These are the letters that she wrote.
I ended up reading Ketchup Clouds in a day. It tells the story of Zoe (not her real name) as she recounts her biggest, darkest secret to a criminal on death row, in a series of secretly-written letters. Zoe explains how she came to kill someone and how she came to get away with it.
This is a Young Adult novel – it deals with alcohol and sex and the confusion of hormones that comes with being a teenager (remember that?) But it also deals with bigger issues: control, grief, guilt. In a swift 305 pages, it tries to sum up the tumult of growing up, in the epicentre of a tragedy.
Before we go much further, we have to swoon over the book itself – a bright (ketchup) red with black silhouettes of birds scattered across its cover and inside pages, as well as red swallows swooping down the fore-edge, making it one of the more attractive books I’ve picked up in a while. It is reminiscent of Pitcher’s first novel, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, the blue twin to this latest novel.
But as for the novel itself – was it as beautiful as its wrappings?
In many ways, yes. Zoe is a powerful voice to have as the protagonist, unswervingly observant and yet endearingly unreliable, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps. The letters are one-way. Zoe is not her real name; she doesn’t live on Fiction Road in Bath. Stuart Harris (the recipient and death row inmate) is a silent witness to the book. We never know if he ever reads the letters, or what he thinks of them. Zoe often supplies him with a story – about burgers and fries and milkshakes with two straws and ketchup packets – and the reader must survive on this fiction.
We must know, in the end, that Zoe doesn’t, in fact, murder anyone. A teenager’s grief sees guilt where it isn’t, although in many ways she was complicit in an act of accident. Zoe is too inherently nice (selfish and overdramatic and often blind to the bigger picture, but nice) to have committed a cold act of murder. Caught in a love triangle of two brothers, partly exacerbated by her own erratic teenage actions, Zoe finds herself lifting the lid on the darker side of passion.
In the end, though, this is a growing-up tale. Of teenagers discovering themselves and realising that just because you like yourself most of the time, that doesn’t mean all of the time; that actions have a greater impact that can be foreseen, and that love (if it is love) is also madness.
Between the passionate drama of the love triangle, we also see in to Zoe’s home life – the controlling, fearful mother, the unemployed father, and the sisters. Dot is the youngest, and deaf. It is from Dot creating mashed potato and ketchup blobs that the book derives its name:
“The sausage was lying flat in its back, grinning at the ketchup clouds.” [p98]
As a story, it is this family life that for me was more compelling. I have seen teenagers fall in love in every conceivable manner (it’s a common theme in Young Adult and films alike), and it wasn’t the slightly overplayed romance that had my attention. There is only so much romantic cliché you can swallow before it becomes a little trite. Rather, it was these slightly shadowy characters of the family; the nuances of pretending to smoke with pens (we all did that), the seesaw between frustration and affection with younger siblings, and the invisible power that arguing parents has over a whole household. It felt real enough to be an account of my own childhood – universal experiences of sisters and parents.
Zoe, for all her faults, is really quite likeable. She reminds me of a younger self (without the accidental killing and murderer pen pal), and it is empowering to see her strike out on her own. But the romance does feel a little over-played. I find that YA romance tends to hit you over the head with it rather than give a more nuanced performance. Arguably, this is because as a teen, you are knocked flat by your first love, and it really is as passionate and crazy as all that, but reading it as a (slightly more jaded) adult, it tends to grate after the first hundred pages. I would have liked to see more family life to really get my teeth in to, but overall this is a compelling novel; spin-tingling as it builds the thriller-esque climax, a book which makes you chuckle more than once, and is startlingly accurate.