Reviewed by Rod McLary
The great late crime novelist P. D. James once said ‘all fiction is largely autobiographical’ and this observation is borne out by Josh Silver’s debut novel HappyHead. The author says [in ‘Josh Silver – in his own words’ at the conclusion of the novel] that, like his protagonist Seb Seaton, he had ‘a very distinct need to be liked’ and struggled with his mental health when he was a teenager; and that he drew on those experiences to inform Seb’s backstory.
Sebastian Seaton is seventeen and selected for entry into a new and radical program designed to solve the ‘national crisis of teenage unhappiness’ or as one of the staff puts it ‘emotional dysregulation’ . Seb’s parents are more excited about his selection than he is – which perhaps may be a symptom of his ‘teenage unhappiness’. Seb is also gay and has been outed through the good but misplaced intentions of his younger sister Lily. His only friend is Shelly – a rather acerbic but caring fellow student at Seb’s school.
Seb, along with ninety-nine other teenagers, enters HappyHead where over a period of thirteen days they undergo a series of individual and group challenges. The residents are each allocated a single bedroom and they are told that each subsequent morning they will move to another one. How they perform in those challenges determines their bedroom number – the closer they move to bedroom one, the better they have performed. To his surprise, Seb begins to demonstrate qualities he was not aware that he possessed – such as resilience, determination and intelligence.
One of his fellow residents is Finn – the typical bad boy – and Seb is drawn towards his ‘chiselled looks’ and his casual elegance. Compared with Finn, ‘even though they are wearing the exact same thing’, Seb looks like ‘a big baby rapper’ . Finn is disruptive and uncooperative; consequently, his bedroom numbers are descending rather than ascending as Seb’s are. But Finn also realises before anyone else that there is something sinister about HappyHead and that perhaps the program’s intentions are not as they seem. It is at this point that the novel changes gear and moves into a more dystopian mode; and the pace changes as Finn with a slightly reluctant Seb begin to uncover the real intention of the program. They discover the program has been hijacked by some of the staff who see an opportunity to subvert it to create a super race by pairing for breeding purposes the most successful of the teenagers.
Seb is an engaging and somewhat naïve young man and the author has created a personal trajectory for him which allows for his qualities of resilience and self-confidence to be expressed. The author captures well the push/pull of adolescence between Seb’s wanting to succeed at the program to please his parents and his wanting to establish his individualism and self-direction. As the novel is written in the first person and the present tense, Seb’s thoughts and responses to what happens around him are immediately available to the reader and this adds an authenticity to the narrative.
The narrative is primarily focussed on Seb and Finn as they struggle to expose the hijacking of the program while at the same time embarking on their romantic relationship. As the novel progresses to its conclusion, Seb and Finn are racing against time and the rogue staff; consequently, the pace and thrill of the chase increases.
The end of the novel brings no resolution but a reference to a further program – Elmhallow – where the selected few will begin ‘the most important journey’ of their lives. Will there be a second book to continue the story? Well, in his Acknowledgements, the author says: To Seb, Finn and Eleanor. I’ve really enjoyed escaping with you. Or not escaping. Let’s see.
HappyHead is a fine debut novel with an attractive protagonist and sufficient thrills and excitement – as well as the increasing sexual tension between Seb and Finn – to engage all young people who enjoy reading. Recommended.
Josh Silver lived in London for a while as he studied at RADA as an actor. He later changed careers and trained as a mental health nurse and also began writing his first book. Josh lives between London and Manchester with his partner. HappyHead is his first novel.
by Josh Silver
ISBN 978 086154 553 7