99 Reasons Why, the latest novel from Caroline Smailes, is a darkly comic peak into the disturbing inner workings of a uniquely dysfunctional family. The story is told through the eyes of Kate Jones, a 22 year old with the unusual job of spying on The Kevin Keegan Day nursery across the road from her bedroom window. It is while doing this she starts watching the girl in the pink coat. Pretty soon Kate’s mum has agreed to steal the girl for Kate.
The story unfolds over the course of 99 short chapters, in which we meet shady Uncle Phil, the volatile and violent Mam, and the spider-tattoed father of the girl in the pink dress, Andy Douglas, in the build up to and aftermath of the abduction. It’s all told in Kate’s compelling voice, an unreliable and inadequate narrator who does not fully grasp the nature of her ‘family’ and her job of watching over the Kevin Keegan Day Nursery until very late in the book. It is this lack of understanding that makes her such a sympathetic character and one the reader cannot help but follow as the story progresses.
While the presentation of such a deeply dysfunctional family could make bleak reading, 99 Reasons Why manages to be both tragedy and comedy. A vein of black humour runs through the book, fueled largely by Kate’s matter-of-fact narration. Her blunt observations of those closest to her and herself make the reader laugh even as we are disgusted or dismayed by what she is telling us. It is a very fine narrative line to tread but Smailes treads it with what appears to be ease.
99 Reasons Why has been hitting the headlines (even landing the author slots on breakfast telly and national radio) due to its innovative approach to ebook formatting and the stories use of multiple endings. There are eleven possible endings, the reader selecting one of the eleven via a spinning wheel on the iTunes/iBooks version or a series of questions on the Kindle ebook. Having tried both versions, I think a prefer the Kindle questions. The selection of colours and numbers and suchlike leading to the Kindle endings reminded me (as I think must have been the author’s intention) of those folded paper things the girls used to make when I was at school to tell your fortune. That said, the spinning wheel on the iPad/iPhone/iPod version was a nice bit of fun.
The most interesting thing about the multiple endings, though, is how they force the reader to reflect upon this particular story and endings generally. I found it remarkable that the ending I was most happy with as a reader, the fairytale ending where Kate rides off into the sunset to live happily ever after, was the ending I would never have selected as a writer, if I were forced to decide on one definitive ending from the ten endings (eleven with the one-off charity auction ending). Perhaps, as writers, we don’t always pick the ending the reader most desires. Which itself is reason enough to give the reader choice, at least where this book is concerned. It’s certainly an issue I will be giving further thought to when I reach the end of my novel-in-progress.
99 Reasons Why with it’s 99 short chapters, has at least 99 good reasons for you to read it. If you need another one, it’s currently 99p on Amazon as part of the spring sale. At that price it’s a steal, and if you don’t like how it ends, you can keep picking until you do.