Born Scared was written by Kevin Brooks and first published in 2016. It’s a thriller that focuses on a teenage boy who is afraid of everything. As it’s a stand-alone story, you don’t have to have read any of Brooks’s other novels to fully appreciate it. Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing a copy for me to review.
From the moment that he was born, Elliot has known nothing but terror. Although experts have been unable to put a name to his condition, his whole life is governed by acute fear. Every sight and sound, from sheep to the colour red, cause his mind to spiral into uncontrollable panic and so he rarely leaves the safety of his “fear-proofed” bedroom.
The one thing that takes the edge off his panic are the little yellow pills that his doctor prescribes. However, due to mix up at the pharmacy, it’s Christmas Eve and he’s running out. His mother leaves in a blizzard to get more. The trip should only take half an hour but as the minutes tick by and she doesn’t return, Elliot realises that something must have gone horribly wrong.
With his last pill beginning to wear off, Elliot is forced to do something terrifying – to head out into the snow to find her. His journey should take him less than a mile away from his home, but the outdoors are unpredictable and his fear is rapidly returning. Will he be able to conqueror it for long enough to find her?
Apologies, but I think this is going to be a fairly short review. Born Scared is a truly strange little novel and, ultimately, I don’t think I can really talk about the plot that much without spoiling it for you. I’ve actually been mulling over this post for days, purely because Born Scared is so weird that I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it. But anyway, let’s start at the beginning. I found the opening third of the novel to be gripping. It set out the premise well in broken chapters, flashing from past to present as Brook laid down the basic threads of the story.
First of all was Elliot’s condition. These chapters are mainly flashbacks of his childhood, explaining about his twin sister’s death, detailing conversations with his doctor about the root of his fears, and showing examples of times when he’s succumbed to terror – such as when a man dressed as Santa “pawed at him” during a parade. The psychological condition is fascinating and did feel real, as Elliot realised that people around him just didn’t understand and struggled to put to words exactly how it felt to him (such as why colours bothered him on some days more than others). While the condition itself is fictional, the novel does present a fair representation of what it is like to have a mental illness.
Running parallel with these chapters were the elements that’s set out the actual story. Scenes of Elliot within his home, speaking to the Ellamay – the “ghost” of his sister – as he could feel the effects of his medication wearing off, helped to build the tension. We know that Elliot is going to eventually leave his house but he draws this out for as long as possible, finding every little excuse to double check his empty medicine bottles to avoid facing his fears. There is also a subplot concerning two thugs who are planning a bank heist, which grows increasingly more relevant as the story progresses.
All in all, these three threads tie together to make an increasingly tense introduction to the story, and it made me want to keep reading in order to find out more. Trouble was that, as Elliot finally did venture out into the night, the tension quickly faded away. I think the biggest problem was that, as a person who did not share Elliot’s phobias, it was hard for me to fully empathise with him. It’s really difficult to find rural Yorkshire terrifying. Things like cars and old ladies and sheep (especially the sheep) just aren’t scary. When Elliot panics, he rationalises how little things about these sights scare him to the core. To continue with the sheep example, he focuses on their horns and sharp hooves and the sound they make (which apparently is the sound of a old man coughing). These things might seem scary if he was faced by a demon but, no, it’s a sheep. And Elliot is fully aware that it’s a sheep, which makes this often come across as funny rather than frightening.
Yet Elliot also comes across things in his six minutes of journey which are legitimately frightening. Many of my readers may be unfamiliar with the Yorkshire Moors, but it’s probably one of the safest places in England. This is not gangland territory, it’s mainly characterised by small farming communities and a whole lot of rolling hillsides. However, in his short adventure, Elliot manages to come across two separate sets of armed villains, both intent on doing him harm. I wanted to believe that this was just his fears spinning out of control, warping his sense of reality, but it didn’t feel that was the case. Both of these criminals actively did try to harm Elliot for no reason at all. What are the odds?
Really, this wasn’t necessary at. The tension of Elliot’s fraying mental state was more than enough to carry the story. Yet in the novel’s final act, everything seemed to be blown out to ridiculous, action-movie proportions. This is where I really need to stop talking, as I don’t want to spoil what happens in the climax, but I will just say that it stretched my suspension of disbelief just a tad too far. After Elliot’s first encounter with people who would do him harm, his personality changes dramatically. The results are just bizarre and, personally, it didn’t work for me at all. Yet, worse still, this didn’t have any lasting effect on Elliot either. In the final few pages, he reverts back to exactly as he was at the start of the book. There is no character development and, as far as the reader knows, he faces no consequences for his actions which makes the novel feel entirely pointless.
I’ve spoken a lot about Elliot so far, but that’s purely because there isn’t really any other characters in the story. We see little bits of others like Elliot’s Mum and Doctor, but their appearances are so fleeting that they don’t make much of an impression. The only other character to receive any page-time is Ellamay and, really, I’d liked to have learned more about her. It’s left to the reader to decide if she’s a ghost or a symptom of Elliot’s worsening condition but, ultimately, she doesn’t have much to do. She disappears at the most important points of the novel and, when she is present, she just acts as the little voice that eggs Elliot on. It’s a pity as she’s the closest thing the book has to a female protagonist, so I’d liked to have seen more of her.
All in all, the novel had a good start but then went rapidly downhill for me. I’ve never read any of Brooks’s other work so I can’t comment on that, but it didn’t seem like this one was the best place for me to start. Maybe I’ll look at one of his more popular works, like The Bunker Diary, in a future review.
Born Scared can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook from Amazon.co.uk