Published: 12th October 2017
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Trigger warnings: Animal cruelty, sexual references, mental health storyline
Ella Black seems to live the life most other seventeen-year-olds would kill for. Until one day, telling her nothing, her parents whisk her off to Rio de Janeiro. Determined to find out why, Ella takes her chance and searches through their things.
And realises her life has been a lie. Her mother and father are running away from a long-buried secret which Ella eventually uncovers. Unable to comprehend the truth, Ella runs away, to the one place they’ll never think to look – the favelas.
This was a book that began with real promise, but then went downhill very fast. Despite an exciting setting and a reasonably interesting portrayal of mental health, it is badly let down by a massively contrived plot, repetitive writing, and the appearance of some tiresome tropes. As such, by the end all I felt was indifference.
The story moves in a lot of unexpected directions, which certainly give it a degree of uniqueness. The problem is, none of it really made a huge amount of sense and the actions of the characters often defied logic, which made it exasperating to read at times. Furthermore, several of the overarching themes amounted to very little at the end.
Ella Black is, on the face it, a polite and thoughtful teenage girl. She is loved by her parents, has two very close friends, and is one of the brightest students in her year. But she also has a dark side that she calls Bella, whose influence causes her to say hurtful things or act violently towards other people and animals. All the time, Ella is fighting to make sure that nobody else finds out about Bella.
One day at school, she is called to the office where her parents are waiting to collect her. Without telling her why, they take Ella to the airport and they catch a flight to Rio de Janeiro, a place where she has always wanted to visit. They stay in a hotel and Ella’s parents confiscate her mobile phone, leaving her worried and confused about why they are being so secretive.
But she is also excited by her new surroundings, soon immersing herself in the beaches and the culture, as well as falling in love with a boy named Christian. They have a wonderful night out together, only the next morning she discovers the truth about why her parents brought her to Brazil, and eventually Ella decides she has no option but to run away.
In the beginning I was intrigued by the plot and where it was going to lead, but once everything was out in the open there was nothing that enabled me to build any kind of emotional connection, since I found it hard to invest in any of the characters. There were moments that I did like, such as the chapters that took place in the English school, but generally the plot was too far-fetched and lacking in fluidity.
A lot of this was down to Ella and the strange decisions she made throughout. The dark side to her personality is a frequent theme in the story, but the precise nature of it could have been explored much more in my opinion, and it arguably reinforces negative stereotypes of mental health. There is also a countdown of 40 days until Ella is meant to die. Although I know what the author intended with this, it is ultimately made to seem completely irrelevant, and the end felt underwhelming as a result.
Another thing that I found frustrating was the totally extreme case of insta-love. All it takes is Ella and Christian to share a glance for a couple of seconds and just like that they are forever set on each other. The relationship was developed a little over the course of the book and he was admittedly quite likeable, but the whole thing felt unrealistic to say the least.
The entire story is written in the first person and that at least helped to convey Ella’s internal battles with her dark side in a powerful way. When placed in a challenging situation, you could always feel Bella lurking beneath the surface and ready to lash out. The presence of her dark side made me unsure of what to fully make of Ella, but in any case she is undoubtedly flawed.
The way her parents handle things does leave a lot to be desired, but I am not sure that was enough to justify Ella’s reaction, which goes way too far. The status of their relationship at the end of the book just left me bewildered, as much as I understand that she had experienced a journey of self-discovery. It was another thing that lacked any kind of rationality.
On the bright side, my favourite thing by far was the setting. Rio de Janeiro and indeed Brazil as a whole is captured beautifully, to the extent where I could almost feel the sights and sounds; immerse myself in the landscape. If there was something that stood out to me in the writing, then it was usually about the setting, such was its detail and the element of originality it brought to the story.
The main problem with the writing was that it was much too repetitive. During the middle part of the story, the author seemed to feel the need to constantly recap everything that had just happened and it slowed the pace down a little. When the story was actually moving forward, the pace picked up quite considerably.
Overall, the concept deserves points for creativity but it is seriously let down by its execution. The setting was the highlight, but otherwise the characters were nothing to write home about and the plot, for me, simply did not work. Having enjoyed Emily Barr’s previous YA novel, The One Memory Of Flora Banks, I felt optimistic for this one but it fell a long way short of my expectations.
A good setting and initial concept, but just too many flaws. This was one of my most disappointing reads of the year, sadly.
My rating: ⭐⭐