I nearly didn’t read Risk. It isn’t light reading. It hits hard, but I couldn’t put it down. If you’re a teenager, read this! It freaks the hell out of the rest of us.
Fifteen-year-old Taylor and Sierra are best friends. Sierra is stunning, athletic, popular with boys, has rich parents and anything she wants. She can be lovely, but being around her is often hard work. She doesn’t have a clue about how she should treat other people, and seems to care even less. Taylor spends a lot of energy pushing down jealousy of everything Sierra has, and excusing what she does.
At Taylor’s place they meet a hot boy a few years older than them in an online chat room. Taylor keeps chatting after Sierra goes home, and it’s looking good – for once she might get the boy. But no; next time they see each other Sierra announces she’s totally into him and is meeting him on Friday. Devastated, Taylor plays the good friend, but she can’t face going with her to meet him. Instead, Sierra asks her to cover for her.
Instead of going back to Taylor’s place, Sierra calls to say she’s staying the night with him. Taylor has to lie to keep her secret. When she doesn’t show up on Saturday, what should Taylor do? Should she tell their parents and get them both into trouble? Or should she wait, because Sierra is bound to turn up eventually?
The premise of Risk is what every teen believes won’t happen to them, and every parent’s nightmare. The reality of predators cyberstalking teenagers is difficult to convey, and the ease with which they can glean so much about a target’s life is terrifying. The majority of teens don’t realise a predator could find out where they live and go to school, things they’ve done, likes and dislikes, interests, music they play, photos they’ve taken and anything else about them that’s online. It’s even more disturbing to know they use all this to deliberately attract their target, making him or her think they’re soul mates.
Risk* is narrated by Taylor, and the text itself is easily accessible to an average teenager. The threads of the story are skillfully woven, establishing Taylor and Sierra’s relationship and those of the rest of their group of friends. We see how innocently it all starts with both Taylor’s and Sierra’s infatuation with ‘Jacob Jones’, and how crushed Taylor is when he prefers Sierra. Initially I thought the book took too long to get to the point where Sierra disappeared, but as I read further I realised it was necessary. We need to go through it all with Taylor so we understand how she reacts, both initially when she doesn’t know whether to tell someone Sierra has disappeared, and in the long term.
Fleur Ferris has made excellent use of her background as a police officer and paramedic, and the descriptions of the interactions Taylor has with the police have the gravitas of authenticity. There are no soppy cops making it easy on Taylor or her friends. They aren’t treated badly, but tears, upsets and embarrassment aren’t going to stop these police from doing their job, and they know exactly what they’re on about.
SPOILERS Don’t read any further if you don’t want big hints about what happens to Sierra.
People connected to Sierra cope in different ways, including Taylor’s mixed up emotions and various types of guilt. Ferris does a good job depicting the manifestations and confusions of grief. She didn’t try and bring the story to a rosy ending with we’ve-all-worked-through-it-now smiles, the sun setting and music swelling. It has a resolution, and a satisfying one as a story, but manages to keep the awareness that something like this is never truly resolved – people just keep on going because there aren’t any viable alternatives.
Risk should be on your To-be-read list as of July, and give it to any teenagers you know. It’s not a light read, but it’s a compelling and important one.
Risk by Fleur Ferris
Random House, Australia
Publication: 1 July 2015