“When Aaron gets a job at a funeral home, he surprisingly takes to it. But there are dark secrets hidden in Aaron’s subconscious. He experiences dangerous bouts of sleepwalking and recurring dreams he can’t explain: a lifeless hand, a lipsticked mouth, a man, a gun… Can he piece the clues together and ﬁgure out the truth of his past?”
When John Marsden proclaims, ‘I have never read a book more gripping, nor more triumphantly alive’ you would assume that Scot Gardner’s The Dead I Know is going to be something pretty special. Churning through the book in a couple of hours, I would have to say that John Marsden was on the money. Scot Gardner has created a story that is realistic, haunting, bone-chillingly scary and life-affirming.
Aaron Rowe is a sleep-walking teen who has left school for a job with a funeral director. In an occupation that would freak most people out, Aaron has found a sense of belonging. His boss, John Barton, and his wife, look out for him – no strings attached, even if their young daughter is bossy and interfering. While Aaron’s job is on the right track, his nightmares are getting worse and he is scared he is going to do something that he will regret, or worse – not remember.
When you first meet Aaron, you really wonder what you are in for. There is nothing about his life that you would want nor admire, except for the fact that after a much needed haircut he is considered to be very attractive. He has no friends, his new job is at a funeral home, he lives with someone whose mental health is rapidly degenerating and his personality isn’t exactly thrilling.
The Dead I Know is told from Aaron’s point of view. While it never feels like he is lying or manipulating the reader, there are some things he definitely isn’t telling us, either because he can’t remember, or doesn’t think it necessary for us to know. This makes the reaction of other characters towards Aaron perplexing; they seem surprised and pleased when he shows normal behaviour. They know something we don’t. We are also left in the dark about Aaron’s ‘American’ accent and ‘Mam’. As some readers will know, Mam is the English version of ‘Mum’. This character, and the lack of details surrounding Aaron’s past, shroud him in mystery. However, it becomes clear that there are reasons why Aaron is so comfortable with his new job, so familiar with death – something to which his ever-increasing somnambulism and nightmares attest.
Despite this, we are drawn into Aaron’s world, perhaps because he seems so good. There is a dangerous moment where he could be seen as a loser loner, but we soon learn that he is just quiet, reserved, and a little damaged. He is respectful to his boss, loves Mam, and while his judgment regarding her is cloudy, he always seems to do the right thing. A different character in a YA novel might do the exact opposite, just to add drama. He respects his elders, he does his job well, is honest, and even though he may be one of the most traumatised fictional characters you might have met, he doesn’t take advantage of this by engaging in stupid behaviour. Even in his darkest hour, where we aren’t sure what he has or hasn’t done – we fully sympathise with him.
It also doesn’t hurt that Aaron is hot. The imagery of him sleep-walking in his pyjamas is just too cute, and it is in his interactions with Skye Barton, his boss’ daughter, that I feel we have a new romantic hero in Aaron. Don’t get me wrong though, there is no romance with Skye – she is only 12! He is calm and gentlemanly when the most patient of us would have told her to rack off, and that was enough to make me like him. A lot.
The Dead I Know reminded me of Markus Zuzak’s The Book Thief and Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, in the way I reacted to certain scenes. Hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck-standing-up-and-really-needing-to-put-the-book-down-because-it-was-so-affecting type reaction. But I couldn’t. The difference with this book is that it was ‘real’ – no ghostly narrators or fantasy creatures. It was Aaron’s own thoughts and experiences regarding death that made me feel this way. It was confronting and refreshing to feel this way reading a YA book; I am used to them being unputdownable due to thrills and romance.
By the end of The Dead I Know, you will feel happy to be alive and realise how resilient the human spirit is. It is also heartening to read a YA novel where the adults are kind and nurturing, where the adults involved protect children, rather than just used in an ‘all grown ups are bad’ plot device that allows the protagonist to rebel and roam about, free of adult supervision.
Publication Date: May 2011
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Teaser Quote: By giving him grace, I found some of my own. The police protected the living, ambulance officers protected the injured and we protected the dead. All as it should be.