Every so often a YA book comes along and really stands out – maybe because of its characters, its unique concept, a great sense of humour, some especially good writing, or a gripping plot. Well, Life in a Fishbowl by Len Vlahos has all that and more.
Told in third person, the book focus on Jackie Stone and her family, who up until recently were perfectly normal. That is until Jackie’s dad, Jared, is diagnosed with cancer and told he has only months to live. Jared quite naturally freaks out, realising that not only will it tear his family apart emotionally but also financially – and that the tumour is already settled comfortably inside his brain.
Jared decides he needs to act, and with his wife Deirdre and daughters Jackie and Megan still completely in the dark about his diagnosis, Jared puts his life (or the four months that’s left of it), up for auction on eBay. Bidders can do whatever they please: ‘slavery, murder, torture, or just pleasant conversation.’ He’s offering ‘a human life, yours to control, yours to own. Bidding starts at one million dollars.
Readers then get a peek into the heads of the several very different people who bid on Jared’s life – a nun, a bored young millionaire, an enthusiastic teen named Hazel and the eventual ‘winner’ – a TV executive. Although eBay pulls the listing because it violates their policies (very true), it gives TV exec Ethan Overbee an idea, and the reality TV show ‘Life and Death’ is born.
With the Stone family’s lives unravelling on live television for the entire world to watch and the producers manipulating and milking their emotions to no end, Jackie has to find strength and support in unexpected places, and start to face the inevitable heartbreak that’s speeding towards her head on.
Although families do not go through quite what the Stones do in Life in a Fishbowl, many of their other experiences with grief and loss are universal. As Glio slowly begins to consume Jared’s memories, we see his cognitive faculties begin to fade for ourselves – he finds himself confused, tired, unsure of how to connect with his wife and daughters in this strange new world they find themselves. He can’t remember what he was going to say, or why he walked into a room. It is beautifully written, and heart-wrenching to read.
Deirdre, Megan and Jackie are coming to terms with their grief for the man they’re already losing, and need to make some incredibly difficult choices as the book progresses. The novel touches on some tough issues, but they’re handled with respect, and will prompt discussions with older readers around faith, religion, death and grief.
One of the things that makes this book so distinct is the range of voices. We get to know Jackie and Jared particularly well, but also Sister Benedict, the younger Stone sister Megan, and even Glio (short for Glioblastomas) – Jared’s brain tumour itself. We asked author Len Vlahos about writing the different perspectives, where the inspiration came from, and how he avoids ever writing down to his audience – click here to read our interview in full.
Life in a Fishbowl succeeds at the many lofty goals it has set itself. It considers the levels our society has reached in regards to TV and technology – when millions watching a man’s last few months as a reality TV show doesn’t seem particularly unrealistic – and the many ways cancer deeply and irrevocably affects people’s lives. It’s intensely moving but also darkly humorous, with genuinely relatable characters you’ll come to love and feel for, and a story you’ll never forget.