Life in a Fishbowl – Len Vlahos

To open this post I am going to borrow a phrase from an awesome woman and wonderful children’s TV presenter I did some work for a few years back.

Ahem.

CRIKEY PYJAMAS!!!!!!!!

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Honest, you guys, hooooly macaroni was I not expecting this book. It was a birthday gift from the wonderful Book Fairy (thank you darling!) and Heavens to Murgatroyd I wasn’t completely ready for it!

Life in a Fishbowl looks like it might be very silly. I wondered, actually, if it mightn’t be the same sort of absurd/sublime that The 100 Year Old Man was… BUT IT ISN’T.

Fair warning – and many, many trigger warnings – this book covers such light and happy subjects as terminal illness, amnesia, euthanasia, post-truth media entertainment, exploitation, online vs. offline identity, and the ethics/value of human life/selling human life/selling human life if it’s your life you’re selling.

Oooooooooookay then.

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The basic premise is this – the protagonist, Jackie, is a teenage girl with a relatively normal life. That is, until her dad, on being diagnosed with aggressively terminal cancer, attempts to sell the remainder of his life to the highest bidder (to help pay for the inevitable medical bills and support his family when he’s gone). If that’s not enough, it turns out the the highest bidder is, in fact, a TV station who wants to make a reality TV show out of Jackie’s family during her dad’s final days. The nation (of course) tunes in avidly to watch a dying man and his family.

This is a YA book – emphasis on the young adult, here, as obviously there are plenty of themes which may not be suitable for younger readers. It covers a lot, and the author does come obviously down on one side of a fairly contentious ethical argument, which feels a teensy bit preachy at times (to me anyway) – but really, it was a well written and incredibly gripping story. As a reader, you guiltily identify with the audience in the book, hungrily voyeuring on Jackie and her family in their grief – you want to know what happens, but you’re also on Jackie’s side in resenting the intrusion and wishing her and her family some privacy and dignity. It’s a really interesting dynamic to experience as a reader, and it prompts some uncomfortable self reflection through the use of the patently absurd – kind of like The Hunger Games, actually. Like – I don’t really believe that a TV show following a dying man 24 hours a day up to his death would be commissioned, just like I don’t really believe that a show where kids fight each other to the death would be… but it’s juuuust close enough to reality to make for some extremely pointed social commentary.

Ultimately, this was a very griping narrative, and I loved what the book had to say about identity and community. At times I thought it was a tiny bit over packed with ISSUES, and at times I felt that the author was making their ethical argument at the expense of the narrative… but I read avidly, and (after an appropriate break to let my heart rate slow down!) I will probably read it again. Some extremely interesting food for thought and possible discussion points.

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