Joe All Alone, by Joanna Nadin, is written in such a strong voice that for the first half of the book I felt drawn to writing my review in the same style. It would, I felt, have been entering into the spirit of Joe, who is a boy who desperately wants to do the right thing despite his situation. But halfway through the book I changed my mind, because spirit is one thing, but deprivation and neglect are something quite different.
Joe lives with his mum and her boyfriend Dean, who is about as unpleasant as someone can get without being physically violent. Joe’s mum has made a series of unfortunate mistakes when it comes to men, it seems – though at least her previous man, Carl, had money so that although he was also a wrong ’un, they lived in a nice house in a nice area. Not now – Joe’s apartment is on the top floor of a small block of flats in Peckham, and Dean is so bigoted and racist, he’s made sure that Joe doesn’t have any friends among their neighbours.
Which turns out to be unfortunate, because when disaster strikes, Joe has no one to turn to. His mum and Dean head off to Spain, leaving him £20 and the promise to return in a week. I loved this first section of the book because it rang so very true. This is no Lord of the Flies; Joe doesn’t go and blow the whole lot on sweets. He’s a highly responsible boy for thirteen, with a very good idea of exactly what he’s going to need financially, and he knows how to budget. Instead, what we get is a very subtle description of Joe’s developing sense of relief that Dean is no longer there. A weight has been lifted; he has a whole week before that awful man returns, and the effect on Joe is substantial. Dean is still there, in his head, but as the days pass, Joe grows in confidence in his own abilities and even starts up a friendship with Asha, a girl Dean would definitely not approve of, being ‘not like us’. Asha is delightful – coming from a family with their own problems, she nonetheless has great emotional maturity and a deep sense of loyalty.
Mum and Dean don’t return on the appointed day – which is a problem because the money has run out, and Joe is being menaced by a bully at school. And this is where the book starts to take a darker turn, and where you’ll be unable to put it down. As a reader, I wanted so much for everything to turn out OK for Joe. As a writer, I had full confidence in Joanna not to tie everything up in a big bow!
Joe All Alone is a great book, simple in concept and linear in execution but powerfully written in a way that any young person should be able to connect to. There’s swearing but it’s not gratuitous, it’s real, and there’s a romance, which develops more than I was expecting but is similarly real and is a glimmer of niceness for Joe in an otherwise bleak world. I read Jo’s last book EDEN and raved about it here. This is a very different beast but no less brilliant.
On a side note, I couldn’t help noticing that both Jo and I have recently created male characters called Joe in our books (mine is brother to Electrigirl, out next Feb). I wonder if there’s a point in our lives that we unconsciously want to use our own names in our books to immortalise ourselves in some way…? Only to write about a heroine called Jo might be seen as egotistical, so we craftily gender-swap and add an extra ‘e’…! Have any other writers done this, I wonder?
Joe All Alone is out now and published by Little, Brown. It’s warm, funny, frightening and real, and everyone should read it. And then go read Eden too.