This is Eileen Merriman’s thirteenth novel in seven years, and a prequel to Catch Me When You Fall, her second YA novel, published in 2018. Merriman rarely stops for a break; she’s also a consultant at North Shore Hospital, ideally placed to write about medical conditions with authority. And so she does.
In Catch Me When You Fall, Alexandria, a relapsed leukaemia patient, falls in love with a boy named Jamie Orange. The novel was a bestseller, received a Storylines Notable Book Award in 2019 and was shortlisted for the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. In this prequel, fifteen-year-old Jamie Orange is the narrator.
Here Jamie seems on top of the world. He’s been given one of the biggest parts in the school musical – the donkey in Shrek – with his crush, Francesca Collins (Frankie) cast as Princess Fiona. He’s not her leading man, but it’s nearly as good. Jamie is theatre-obsessed, singing along to Phantom of the Opera and playing the piano in accompaniment at any opportunity. He’s writing a musical of his own, and after a chat with his English teacher he thinks he’ll write a new version of George Orwell’s 1984, but with zombies. ‘I thrive on being weird,’ he says. Jamie’s world is ebullient and fast-moving, but also out of sync. His friend Vaughan complains about the speed of Jamie’s cycling. ‘I took pity on him and slowed down,’ Jamie tells us. ‘Lately it seemed as though I’d been doing that a lot. Slowing down for other people, I mean.’
Warning signs flicker from the beginning, when Jamie recounts his recent trip to Venice with his father and ‘realised my brain wasn’t like other people’s’. He fell into a ‘black pit of despair’ and retreats to the hotel room, pleading flu and imagining ways to kill himself.
But in the end I couldn’t get up enough motivation to do anything. So I lay there for three days, until it was time to go to the airport and fly home. And somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, somehow, my brain reset itself. Either that, or it short-circuited the stupid loop it had got in and switched to an alternative pathway.
Jamie writes off the episode as a product of jet-lag and too much gelato. ‘Denial’s good like that,’ he admits. Back at school, he resumes his usual hectic pace. Roadblocks obstruct his pursuit of Frankie: her current boyfriend is one of Jamie’s closest friends. Seeing them together hurts Jamie’s heart, especially since Ari’s the opposite of everything Jamie is: taciturn, muscular, athletic and a sportsman.
When things don’t fall in place the way Jamie would like, he makes reckless decisions, walking home several kilometres from Frankie’s birthday party, drunk and unhappy. He doesn’t stop to consider the danger when he gets into a stranger’s car. Is this rebellious teenage behaviour, not considering consequences, or is it darker than that? Jamie can always justify his actions, to himself, to his parents. His Norwegian-born mother may have warned him about accepting rides but ‘Dad always picked hitch-hikers up if there was room in the car’. He barely escapes a very bad situation, but tells his parents nothing. ‘My mind clamped down. No. Don’t think about that. Nothing happened’.
Merriman keeps the pressure on the first-person narrative, the tension building as Jamie and Frankie grow closer, and Jamie’s mood corkscrews through the trials of first love. The reader is bombarded with hints of danger. When his teacher scolds him for not staying on task, ‘I nodded, and he wandered off. And so, as usual, did my brain’. At night he can’t sleep, troubled by ‘constant anxiety’.
His mother disapproves of his borrowing her car without permission or a licence; his father wants to know why he’s wandering the Auckland Domain late at night; and Frankie think it’s weird that Jamie wants to dress up in an expensive suit and take her on a proper date. Jamie can’t understand why everyone wants to stop him being happy, insisting on sleep. For him, everything seems fabulous.
Catch a Falling Star brims with a restless, flickering energy. Jamie’s highs are compelling:
I leapt out of bed, feeling as though I could run a marathon or dive off a cliff into deep water, slicing through the blue with barely a ripple. Life was great! I was in love!
And his lows are ambulance-at-the bottom- of-the-cliff darkness:
That made me think of Virginia Woolf, the writer who’d drowned herself by walking into a river with rocks in her pockets. It didn’t seem like a good way to go to me. And why was I thinking about death again, why? Did everyone have thoughts like that, or was it just me?
In his quieter moments, Jamie contemplates his uncle Anders’ death at a young age, questioning his mother until she admits it was suicide. Jamie and his uncle were alike, she says: a cheeky and outgoing nature was something they shared. So Jamie lives his lively, funny truth with his friends and Frankie, making jokes:
‘I forgot you were half-Norwegian. No wonder you’re so blond.’ Frankie twirled a strand of hair around her finger, a habit of hers … ‘Can you speak any?’
‘A little. Smilet ditt er vakkert.’
She cocked her head to one side. ‘What does that mean?’
‘It means, you have a lovely banana.’
‘No. Wait. That’s not right.’ I put a finger to my lips, as if deep in contemplation. ‘It means, I hold your banana in the greatest esteem.’
But underneath, he’s wondering what else he shares with his uncle, wondering if Anders’ brain also skipped around at a thousand miles an hour.
Jamie’s wide vocabulary could seem incongruous if he wasn’t a theatre geek and an obsessive English student, reading widely. Occasionally, the teenage vernacular in the novel seems to lose its way — for example, ‘doing a compulsory juggle of my man-bits in front of the mirror’ — but this is a minor flaw.
Medical stories are increasingly popular, with medical issues and professionals at the centre of various recent novels – including Carl Shuker’s A Mistake, Fake Baby by Amy McDaid, and The Doctor’s Wife by Fiona Sussman. Emma Espiner and Himali McInnes have both written memoirs about their experiences as doctors in New Zealand. Merriman has captured the teen medical fiction market in New Zealand, following the massive popularity of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars overseas, and writes with authority. Acknowledging that mental health and teen relationships are serious topics to tackle, Merriman’s publisher commissioned two psychiatrists to review Catch a Falling Star. The novel is recommended for readers 15 year olds and older.
In Catch Me When You Fall, Alexandria’s relationship with Jamie takes centre stage and his thoughts are inaccessible to the reader. This prequel fills that gap, providing the reader with Jamie’s point of view and revealing much more of his personality and struggles. Merriman has grown as a writer since she wrote the sequel. Catch a Falling Star is tauter, tense and convincing. It’s Jamie’s story – dark, bookish teenage drama.