The Witness by James Jauncey

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The Witness by James Jauncey

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Wonderful, challenging novel encouraging political participation and moral questions about life and land, while providing a really tense and well-paced adventure story. The very end is perhaps a little too tidy for the most sophisticated readers but other than that, this is classy, admirable stuff.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: August 2007
Publisher: Young Picador
ISBN: 978-0330447133

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In a dystopian Scotland in the near future, land ownership reforms have caused havoc. Global warming and administrative incompetence has destroyed lives, livelihoods and environment. An authoritarian government has brutalised peaceful protest and objectors have turned to terrorism. Eighteen-year-old John MacNeil finds himself the only witness to a government atrocity - the massacre of an entire hamlet at Blackriggs. Finding himself responsible for its only survivor, a young mentally handicapped boy called Ninian, John determines to return the boy to what's left of his family. What John doesn't realise is that Ninian himself is inextricably linked to the rebel cause. In the course of their dangerous journey across the Cairngorms, they are beset not only by murderous government troops, but also an increasingly hostile climate.

The Witness was a wonderful read. Jauncey has created a marvellous hero in John MacNeil. He is a natural loner, haunted by the death of his synaesthetic brother and the subsequent break up of his parents' marriage. Without the words to articulate his grief or his guilt, John has thrown himself into stewardship of the land with his gamekeeper father and into the wordless beauty of music. He has grown into a young man of great personal integrity - but he has avoided the bigger questions in life. Over the course of the book, he is required not only to save Ninian - a cipher for many things, not least of which his young brother - but also to confront his inner demons, so that he is able to find his own answers to these questions.

It's pacy, it's urgent, the action is compelling. But The Witness is considerably more than a genre thriller with a future catastrophe come green message for window dressing. It's tremendously thought-provoking. It asks the biggest of questions - is any cause worth dying for? Is any cause worth killing for? At what point is it right to sacrifice principle to practicality? It asks the most intense personal questions - can relationships flourish without trust? Should we hold on to our guilt? What can make us happy? But what it does that I most admired is to encourage political participation. John is an unwilling entrant into political debate, but his flight across the Highlands shows him that politics isn't necessarily about warring parties. It's about hearth and home, land and love, it's about everything. Dull-as-ditchwater citizenship lessons are unlikely to persuade apathetic teenagers to make their first cross on a ballot paper, but reading books like this will open up ideas and possibilities that will.

The denouement is perhaps a little too neat and nice for some adult readers and perhaps even for some sophisticated teens. Having been challenged all the way through the narrative, I would have liked to see things a little less tidily wrapped up. Life isn't ever quite finished and, much as we'd like it to be so, dystopia doesn't turn to utopia because of the actions of one heroic young man. But this is a nit pick. The Witness comes very highly recommended by Bookbag.

My thanks to the good people at Macmillan for sending the book.

Teen readers might also enjoy Peadar O Guilin's take on catastrophe in a slightly more distant future, The Inferior, while "young adults" (does anyone actually know anyone belonging to this odd, mythical, publisher demographic?) will love Ken MacLeod's The Execution Channel.

Booklists.jpg The Witness by James Jauncey is in the Top Ten Dystopian Books For Children.

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