'Numbers' by Rachel Ward

'Numbers' by Rachel Ward
(Laura Carlin)

A Novel

Rachel Ward

Chicken House/Scholastic: 328 pp., $17.99

Whether it's telekinesis, telepathy, clairvoyance, magic or ESP, otherworldly powers have long captivated young readers, empowering them, through fantasy, to believe that anything is possible. Employed by the likes of William Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, one would think that the permutations of psychic abilities had been exhausted.

Enter "Numbers," about a teenage girl in England's foster care system who is able to see people's death dates when she looks into their eyes. This burden of a "gift" is the intriguing premise of an action-packed, emotional roller coaster of a debut young adult novel from British author Rachel Ward.

Fifteen-year-old Jem has been able to see these numbers as if "they were stamped on the inside of my skull" since she was a child, she says early on. The first number she saw was that of her mother, who died on cue from a heroin addiction, revealing to Jem what the numbers she was seeing really meant. Now Jem, who was the product of a one-night "toss" by her junkie "mum," avoids making friends and otherwise getting close to people.

Ward does an excellent job of tapping the psyche of a teen who's victim to such grim knowledge. Angry at the world and everyone in it, Jem lashes out at her teachers, her foster mother -- anyone who tries to help or befriend her. She degrades and distrusts anyone of authority. She doesn't take pride in, or play up, her appearance, choosing instead to make herself as unappealing and unlikely to get emotionally hurt as possible. She's completely guarded and unself-aware -- until she meets a classmate during an after-school self-pity party at the local juvie hangout, a London canal. Spider is a lanky black teen who, Jem can see, will be dead in a mere two weeks. But there's something about his sense of humor, his nihilism, that draws her near. So begins their friendship, as they bond over their lack of a future growing up in London's underclass outskirts, and it quickly buds into romance.

One day, while playing hooky, Jem and Spider find themselves at the center of an imminent terrorist bombing. Jem notices that everyone around them has that day's date as their number, so the two flee the scene. Caught on camera and later televised as possible suspects, the two go on the lam, and Jem has to learn to trust someone for the first time since she was a child.

In Ward's hands, Jem is entirely believable and relatable, even if the situation in which she finds herself is not. But that's what makes this book such a page-turner. What starts as a simple extrasensory gimmick grows into an increasingly engrossing and au-courant plot line involving terrorism, class tensions and youth. While peppered with "shed loads" and "poxy" and other Anglo slang terms whose meanings aren't entirely clear, one thing is certain: Ward's "Numbers" is ace.

Carpenter is a Times staff writer.