When The Cat's Away [Review: Gone]

I previously reviewed The Speed Of Dark, Elizabeth Moon's near-future novel about adults with autism, here. As this week is World Autism Awareness Week I've chosen to review another novel featuring a character with autism: Gone by Michael Grant.

Suddenly and without warning or special effects of any kind, all the adults and over-15s living in Sam Temple's town Perdido Beach have disappeared. A mysterious barrier has also appeared around the town so no-one can leave or contact the outside world in any way. And there's more: Sam, and some of the other children have developed a range of superpowers, apparently before the disappearance.

Gone is the first book in Michael Grant's popular series of novels for young adults, set in a present-day world without adults. While the novel explores this scenario, introduces Sam and his companions and other less likeable children, and sets up a long list of mysteries to be revealed later in the series, it also explores some satisfyingly heavy themes. It's been written into international law that all YA fiction must be about social inequality, and Gone is no exception, but as it's set in the present day, the social tensions are perfectly familiar: attitudes towards immigrants, religious intolerance and the gap between rich and poor parts of town, rather than futuristic factions or districts.

Grant is a confident writer, able to tackle real-world subjects that some authors seem to avoid or allegorize: including religious tension and also discrimination over mental illness. A minor character is a teenager with bulimia, and Sam's allies include Astrid and her young brother Pete who is portrayed as severely autistic - either unable or unwilling to communicate most of the time and severely distressed by raised voices or other disturbances. There's a strong protective bond between Pete and Astrid, and without too much infodumping Astrid is still able to communicate the nature of autism to the others (and to the reader.)

The scenario is not particularly original: superficial elements may have been "borrowed" from Stephen King's Under The Dome and the many, many teenage-superpower books and films. It succeeds in mixing these elements to create something that feels fresh, and is willing to take the reader into a fairly dark place - it would be fair to describe Gone as a re-imagined Lord Of The Flies. It's a gripping read that also has something meaningful to say.

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