Wasted is a story about chance, about Jack who seeks to control it by directing his life through the toss of a coin, and about Jess who has to deal with the consequences. Oh, and it has to be one of the most nerve-jangling books I've read for a long time, though in a good way. I mean, I'm used to getting attached to characters and worrying about them, but Wasted dials that edge-of-the-seat anxiety up a notch. Why? Because not only are we shown how chance determines what is, we also get to see what could have been. And the reader has a hand in shaping both.
The driving force within Wasted is the way small seemingly unrelated moments can combine to determine the course of events, even spelling the difference between life and death. But those moments could easily have been different. What if we had arrived somewhere slightly earlier, or missed a particular phone call? What if someone glanced up and noticed something they might easily have missed? Life is shot through with What Ifs like these, but in Wasted we are given a god's eye view of this process. At two points during the book the reader is even shown the dramatic role of chance through alternative chapters, and then, at the end, it's our turn to toss a coin to decide the fates of Jack and Jess.
I must admit that I wasn't very keen to read this book. I'd got hold of the wrong idea about it and its coin-flipping peculiarity. I imagined it would be like those choose-your-own-adventure books I read as a boy. But I'm a grateful follower of the author's blog and knew this was an important title for her, so I added it to the pile. The fact that it has turned out to be one of the highlights of my reading year shouldn't really surprise me though, because I knew from Fleshmarket that Nicola Morgan writes beautifully and vividly. But to think I almost didn't read Wasted! There's a What If right there.
The voice of the narrator (and therefore the author) is very present in Wasted, and this might grate with some. But don't let it. The presence of the author at our shoulder is key to how the book works. This is a puppet show where not only can we see the puppets and their story, but also the puppeteer, and even the way the strings interact. The result is a completely engrossing reading experience -- literature in the round. Actually, it's like being invited backstage to watch the play, and is all the more fascinating for that.
It says something about how much I got caught up in the story that I took that final act of coin tossing very seriously. I was determined not to sneak a view of the alternative ending, and I still haven't. I flipped the coin and got heads, and with it the end of the story that chance dictated. Then I turned the book round and round in my hands, looking at it, as I always do when I finish something and know I'll never be quite the same again. It is, quite simply, a brilliant book.