Dave Cousins – 15 Days Without a Head

davecousins-15dayswithoutaheadFifteen-year-old Laurence Roach just wants a normal life, but it’s far from easy with his little brother who acts like a dog and their depressed alcoholic mother. If Laurence can win the luxury vacation in a local radio contest, he’s certain his mum will finally be happy again. Then one night she doesn’t come home from work, and Laurence must face the reality that she might not come back at all.

Terrified that child services will separate him from his brother, Laurence does whatever he can to keep their mother’s disappearance a secret. For two weeks, he spins a web of complicated lies to friends, neighbors, and the authorities—even dressing up in his mother’s clothes to convince everyone she’s still around. But Laurence can’t hide the truth forever. He begins a desperate search for her, and that’s when the real trouble starts in this powerful story about family, forgiveness, and hope.

I’ve started, scrapped, and restarted this review numerous times already. Why? Because I’m finding it hard to get my thoughts onto paper coherently and without sounding melodramatic—at least to my own ears. Dave Cousins’ 15 Days Without a Head had its protagonist Laurence dealing with problems that resonated with some of the things I dealt with as a teen: the sense of responsibility for a younger sibling; the idea that it was up to me to make sure my mother was happy; that if only I was the perfect child things would be different at home. Of course, Laurence’s tale takes these things and dials them up to eleven, my situation was never that extreme, but it created a sense of connection from the start. It’s exactly that sense of connection that makes this book so hard to review dispassionately, because this is a book that gave me ALL. THE. FEELS. as they say and it’s hard to separate those feelings from my thoughts. Thus, reader, if this review is rather rambly, short, and/or incoherent, I apologise, but here’s my best go.

15 Days Without a Head is tightly written, both time-wise and perspective-wise. We stay tightly in Laurence’s first person present point of view and each chapter covers one day. This creates an immediacy to the story and an intimacy to Laurence’s character – we can almost taste and smell Laurence’s life, not just see and hear it – that only grows as the story moves forwards. Laurence’s life is bleak; his mum is a depressed alcoholic, his six-year-old brother is acting out by pretending he’s a dog, neither of their dads are in the picture, money is tight and to top it all off, child services will take him and Jay away from his mum and separate them if they even get a whiff of the situation. Despite this, Laurence is a good kid, with a huge sense of responsibility for both Jay and his mum and he desperately wants to make everything better. Laurence’s determination and his repeated attempts at excusing his mum’s behaviour broke my heart, especially when he’s trying to shield his little brother from their mum’s behaviour. His self-doubt and his own need for reassurance, love, and sheltering fall completely by the wayside and when there are adults in his life that seem to notice something is wrong and want to help him, he sees them as a threat instead of a lifeline. It also made me wonder about his perceptions of the people around him. Is Nosy Nelly, the ground floor neighbour really a mean-spirited, old snoop, or is she just an elderly lady who is genuinely worried about these two boys, but just isn’t equipped to communicate with such young children anymore? As the boys become more and more isolated, life becomes even bleaker and it’s easy to see why Laurence wants to believe that winning a holiday on a radio quiz will solve everything.

Despite the bleakness of the boys’ situation, there is also humour to be found within the pages of this book. Not just in the scenes where Laurence tries to impersonate his mum but also in the radio quiz scenes and in the scenes where Jay rescues the situation by going into Scooby Doo mode. They create small oases of breathing space for both Laurence and the reader, where we get to forget all the ugliness and just chuckle at the absurdity of it all. Another ray of light in Laurence’s existence is the appearance of Mina, a schoolmate he meets in the library. She’s a breath of fresh air and not only willing to help Laurence keep his secret, but she gets on with Jay really well as well. This gives Laurence someone to trust and to ask for help and this seemingly makes all the difference. I liked Mina, her easy manner and her loyalty to the boys are wonderful and she’s funny and quirky and you can’t help, but see why Laurence falls for her.

Here’s the element I found hardest to deal with in the book: Margaret, the boys’ mother. I found it hard not to be judgemental about her, to keep in mind that she was sick, both due to depression and the alcoholism, that she was leading a hard life and was having a hard time coping. I just wanted to scream and yell at her and shake her and make her see that she couldn’t do this, that she needed help. It’s a reaction motivated by both teenage me and adult me. I have two girls and I can’t imagine not putting them first or at least making sure they are taken care of by someone else before collapsing. And I get depression, I’ve been there, so I know how hard it can be to get up and go, but I can’t imagine letting myself and things get so bad before reaching out for help, now the girls are here. Then again, you can’t know until you walk in their shoes, so Margaret and her behaviour leave me conflicted and unsettled.

At one point in the book I took to Twitter and said: “I’m reading @DaveCousins9000’s 15 Days Without A Head & am both loving it & dreading finding out how it ends. How on earth can it be happy?” And at two-thirds into the book that was genuinely how I felt. But hope springs eternal and the ending of the book while positive, is realistic and doesn’t have all their problems magically taken away: mum isn’t instantly cured of her addiction, she’s shown to have to work at it and they all have to work at rebuilding healthy relationships with each other. I liked that Cousins went this way, because it’s so much more true to life and it’s important for people to learn that recovery, from disease, addiction, trauma, or just life, takes time and isn’t an overnight thing.

15 Days Without a Head is a book I wished I had been able to read when I was sixteen. It would have helped me immensely and I think that’s why it’s an important book for any YA collection. It’s a book that shows teens it’s okay to need help, that you aren’t responsible for your parents’ happiness and that they should take care of you, not the other way around. It deals with these difficult issues with humour and hope and in the end I closed the book with a smile. Hopefully, so will many other teens and not-so-teens-anymore that pick up this lovely, touching book.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.