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Tim Wynne-Jones
Tim Wynne-Jones

The Daily Review, Monday, Apr. 4

The voices of teens - anguished, dynamic and alive Add to ...

Immediately striking about Blink & Caution - award-winning Tim Wynne-Jones's latest young-adult thriller - are the two unique and gripping voices that drive this kinetically thrumming narrative. One of these voices is delivered in the unwieldy, in-your-face second person. According to Wynne-Jones, his choice of the rarer-than-an-albino-black-bear "you" address was not meant to harass the reader, but was employed because the author wanted to represent the persistent voice in Blink's head.

It is through the unusual use of the second person that we meet Blink, an emotionally damaged, recently homeless teenage boy who stumbles upon the fake kidnapping of Jack Niven, chief executive officer of a mining company.

While trying to scavenge breakfast leftovers from room-service plates at Toronto's Plaza Regent, Blink recovers a key card and enters a hotel room that resembles "a terrorist pyjama party." Blink frets about what to do about the kidnapping, and the fact that he has stolen money from Niven's wallet.

As well, he worries about his contact with Niven's attractive and concerned daughter, with whom Blink has been in touch via Niven's purloined BlackBerry. Just as Blink's paranoia and fear really set in, the point of view suddenly switches.

Enter Caution, née Kitty Pettigraw, teen arm candy to Merlin, or Magic Merlin: badass drug dealer and all-round nightmare abusive boyfriend. Like boy Blink, it is unclear when we meet Caution whether she is determined to survive or self-destruct, given the company she keeps. Only midway through the novel does Caution understand herself: She endured Merlin's emotional and physical blows because "he was what she deserved … her sentence and her punishment." We meet Caution only as she is at the start of her emotional journey away from the palpable yet receding guilt she feels about a gun accident that caused her older brother's death.

Survival of the fittest - and paradoxically the most damaged and deranged - is a major theme in Wynne-Jones's latest contribution to his extensive YA collection. Like Caution, Blink (whose real name is Brent Conroy) has escaped from an abusive past, namely, a violent, alcoholic stepfather and a mother too passive to save her small family unit. Like Caution, Blink believes that he is worthless, "a bit of wreckage washed up on the shore." The two burned-out teens meet on their way to Kingston, where Blink is set to meet with Niven's daughter to pursue the kidnappers. How and why the two ragamuffins solve the convoluted mystery of the missing CEO would only ruin the mystery, not too mention require a firm understanding of business ethics.

Blink and Caution is strongest in the first half, when the two leads are in the throes of settling their own personal scores as Toronto's filth and squalor enrobe the young runaways like a smoggy duvet. Caution's impulsive yet perfectly executed scheme to entrap Merlin, like Blink's plan to frame his stepfather, are pitch-perfect revenge plots. Less interesting, and less believable, is the main plot of the story, in which the kids become involved in the random exploits of Niven & Company.

Also gimmicky is the title: Blink is named such because, well, he blinks a lot; Caution's sobriquet is earned because, like a fat man named Tiny, she is the opposite. Get it? Wynne-Jones is a capable writer: Time and again, he has proved that he brings characters alive through diction, description, setting and dialogue, so the compulsion to graft meaning onto characters who are already dynamic and alive feels as forced as the "guns are bad" message from the author at the end of the novel.

At the same time, Wynne-Jones should be lauded for taking so many risks and resisting templates and conventions in a genre all too committed to fangers and cookie-cutter wizard romances. For example, this book would appeal equally to both genders, a formidable accomplishment given the divide created by current young adult trends.

While not all of the author's literary experiments are successful, they are compelling and original. Despite the gimmicks and occasional heavy-handedness, Blink and Caution captures the alienation of adolescence and the painful process of becoming oneself, in a time fraught with complications and chaos both from within and without.

Ibi Kaslik is the author of The Angel Riots and the young-adult novel Skinny. She also ran away from home in her teens, but only made it as far as Kensington Market.

 

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