Raised in a string of foster homes after her mother's death from a drug overdose, fifteen year old Jem has never gotten close to anyone. She can't. Because every time she looks into another person's eyes, she sees the date on which they'll die. Their number. It's her secret, and it's a curse.
Then Jem meets a boy named Spider. He's her first real friend, and he's the one with her when she notices that all the tourists queuing for the London Eye have the same number. The date? That very day. They flee the scene just in time to avoid being blown to bits in a terrorist attack, but are caught on CCTV. With no reasonable explanation to give the authorities, Jem and Spider go on the run.
Unfortunately for Jem, there's one thing she can't outrun. And that's the knowledge that Spider's number is nearly up.
As a British fan of YA fantasy and sci-fi, I don't tend to read a lot of novels set in my home country. The books that appeal to me most tend to be set in a) another world, b) another time, or c) modern-day America. Lucky for me, I like those places. But still, I'm always a little thrilled to find a title which appeals to my speculative tastes set in the UK. So, Numbers sounded like a winner to me: girl with a terrifying gift, and we're in London.
In actual fact, Numbers isn't as heavy on the supernatural as I'd expected. Sure, the protagonist knows by looking at a person exactly how long they have left to live, but that's the only paranormal aspect of this book. The story sees Jem struggling to deal with this unique gift and the effect it has on her life. It's a lonely and sometimes depressing journey, a million miles away from fantasy land. It's real.
Jem is a wholly convincing, entirely believable character. I see girls like her in London every day, minus the ability to see the date of a person's death just by looking at them (as far as I know). Rachel Ward does an amazing job of showing us why Jem is like she is, why she doesn't care about anything, and why she's so hostile. In Jem, we're given an accurate portrayal of disaffected youth in Britain. She's difficult, she's frustrating, and she's definitely not best friend material. However, the fact is that while I 'got' her, and while I appreciated the authenticity of her portrayal, I didn't like her.
That said, Jem's relationship with Spider is one of the strongest aspects of Numbers. He's far from the YA traditional love interest, but I found his lack of supernatural powers and his awkward affection for Jem completely refreshing and endearing.
As Jem and Spider journey across the country with the authorities on their tail, Ward shows us some of the different modern Englands that make up the whole: the multi-cultural urban world of the city, the surprisingly challenging rural landscape of the countryside, the historical town where the church offers a surprising source of sanctuary to a fifteen year old misfit. It's one of the few portrayals of contemporary Britain in a YA novel that I truly feel I recognise.
I'd recommend this one to fans of fantasy or sci-fi who are looking to read something just a little outside their comfort zone. Like Jem herself, Numbers isn't polished to perfection but it is dark, challenging and thought-provoking.