Penni Russon

Allen and Unwin

ISBN: 9781741750447

Reviewed by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Shifting back and forth between a simple suburban story about a family rocked by sudden grief, and a chilling dystopian fairytale of another world, Russon shows what an excellent writer she is in this slender but powerful YA novel.

Claire’s greatest challenge in her ordinary life is learning to put away childish things – there’s a new baby coming in her family, and it feels time to pass on her old toys, but she can’t help hanging on to the past, and particularly a music box which represents her favourite memory of her childhood. But with one phone call, her family is changed forever, and as her family descends into shock and sadness, she retreats into a world of dreams.

Meanwhile, in that dreamscape, a hard and determined street kid named Clara has her own grieving to do, along with her fight for survival. She has a music box too, but it is as broken as her world. The two girls cross paths, into each other’s worlds, and are changed by what they see and learn there.

Russon’s writing is devastating. She captures emotions that feel too raw and real to exist on a page, and tosses them back and forth with apparent ease. Her prose shifts from first to third to second person, with transitions that simply shouldn’t work, but give a particular cohesion to a story which is all about fragmented lives. I read it in one sitting, but even as I was tugged along by the story, the writer in me kept having to stop and admire the craft I saw on the page.

Only, Ever, Always is a story of love and hope, of families holding together and deep, abiding sadness. There is so much packed into this deceptively small book! The story evokes memories of the movie Labyrinth, and of the classic Australian shifting-realities novel Playing Beatie Bow. The prose invites comparisons (yes, really!) with that of Margo Lanagan. This is a teen novel which completely justifies (should such justification be needed) the importance of dark and realistic themes as something YA writers can and should be tackling in the works they write for young adults.