Panic by Lauren Oliver
Scene – a small town in middle America, school’s out for summer. For those who’ve graduated high school, finding a full-time job will be a priority unless you’re one of the lucky few who are off to college. The town of Carp is small and poor - no-one has any money. But there is one way out… to win ‘Panic’ – the annual top secret knock-out challenge for high school grads, with a pot this year of $67k for the last one standing at the end of the summer.
Lauren Oliver’s new thriller for older teens and up explores the lives of this year’s players – they all have their reasons for wanting the money. The first challenge is to announce you’re in by jumping from the rocks into the lake at the quarry. Heather only decides at the last minute after she sees her supposed boyfriend snogging another girl.
“Announce yourself!” Diggin boomed out.
Below Heather, the water, black as oil, was still churning with bodies. She wanted to shout down – move, move, I’m going to hit you – but she couldn’t speak. She could hardly breathe. Her lungs felt like they were being pressed between two stones.
And suddenly she couldn’t think of anything but Chris Heinz, who five years ago drank a fifth of vodka before doing the jump, and lost his footing. The sound his head made as it cracked against the rock was delicate, almost like an egg breaking She remembered the way everyone ran through the woods; the image of his body, broken and limp, lying half-submerged in the water.
“Say your name!” Diggin prompted again, and the crowd picked up the chant: Name, name, name.
She opened her mouth. “Heather,” she croaked out. “Heather Nill.” Her voice broke, got whipped back by the wind.
The chant was still going: Name, name, name, name. Then: Jump, jump, jump, jump.
Her insides were white; filled with snow. Her mouth tasted a little like puke. She took a deep breath. She closed her eyes.
This is the start of a summer that will test Heather, her best friends Nat and Bishop, and outsider Dodge to the limit. The challenges in Panic are top secret, and announced by coded signs and text messages. Heather and Nat initially decide to make a pact to share the winnings – half of $67k would be life-changing for either of them – but the pact will put more pressure on the pair rather than lessen it. Bishop, the girls’ best friend is very quiet about the whole thing, he’s not taking part, just supporting. Dodge is the surprise element. He’s out for revenge against Ray Hanrahan, whose older brother Luke caused his older sister to be badly injured and crippled in her year. His best way forward is to side with Heather and Nat for now until the numbers reduce, but he expects Hanrahan to play dirty…
The challenges are all really dangerous – from walking a high-up plank between two water towers, to stealing something from a trigger-happy red-neck’s house amongst them. The players tend to pull out rather than get taken out, but nasty things do happen. When it gets down to the last few – anyone who’s seen the films American Graffiti or Rebel Without a Cause can guess what form the final challenge will take - however, who will be doing it? The police of course, are always one step behind. They know it takes place every year, but the code of secrecy between the players and their friends is solid, the police will only be able to react when something happens.
Despite the severity of the series of challenges they have to go through, there was never quite enough danger for me – but then I am probably more used to the even more full-on goriness of adult thrillers – you have to remember the primary audience for this one. The stakes were high but The Hunger Games it ain’t, thankfully you don’t have to die. Most of the players retire through sheer terror one way or another but this for me downplayed the gladiatorial nature of the game.
The story alternates between Heather and Dodge who have contrasting motivations for playing. Heather just wants to for her and little sister Lily to be able to escape the trailer park and her slutty mother. Oliver does succeed in making you care for Heather, but she lacks back-story and is not a complex character, whereas Dodge is more interesting psychologically, although less likeable for it. The tension between Heather and Bishop, the best friends who are obviously made for each other, could have been built up more too. There’s no doubting Heather’s courage and determination once set on her path.
This novel doesn’t dwell on the past – we get few snippets about previous years’ games which again, could have added some more depth and more tension as you imagine what the next challenges could be this year. It was certainly page-turning in fits and starts, and had its little twists and turns, yet was pretty transparent and predictable. It felt real enough though, bored penniless teenagers looking for thrills – don’t get any ideas! …
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Panicby Lauren Oliver. Pub March 2014 by Hodder & Stoughton, hardback 408 pages.