Title: Life in a Fishbowl (2017)
Author: Len Vlahos
Publisher: Bloomsbury Childrens
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Extent: 336 pages
Release Date: January 12, 2017
Jackie’s life wasn’t perfect, but it was normal. That is, until her dad got a terminal cancer diagnosis. Then went and did what anyone faced with mountains of medical bills and a family to support would do: he sold his life to the highest bidder.
Which turned out to be a TV station.
Suddenly everyone from psychotic millionaires to cyber-savvy nuns wants a piece of Jackie’s family as they become a reality TV sensation. Her life spirals out of control just as her dad’s starts to run out and meanwhile the whole world is tuning in to watch her family fall apart…
2016 was the year I discovered reality television. The years before, I would catch some episodes of My Kitchen Rules, MasterChef, and The Bachelor/ette but never really stayed, having barely any attachment to the characters. Last year, though, I started watching these things from the very start and very quickly got sucked in. I rooted for my favourite contestants and ‘boo’-ed those I didn’t like. I sat glued to the TV, scrolling through the relevant Twitter hashtag. I was, put simply, obsessed — which was why Life in a Fishbowl should have been right up my alley.
Keyword, unfortunately, being should have. The blurb for Life in a Fishbowl might allude to the story of a teenage girl, Jackie, whose father’s last days are broadcasted all over the nation, but it’s actually quite different. Instead, the focus is less on Jackie and more about everyone, or should I say everything, involved in this TV show: the executive producer, the fans, the anti-fans… and even the tumour in Jackie’s father’s head.
Glio — the name by which the high-grade glioblastoma tumor now thought of itself — didn’t know what was happening, but it was lighting up Jared’s brain like a football stadium at night. Glio really, really, really liked it. He stopped to watch.
This book is told in multiple third-person perspectives: Jackie’s, her family members’, her father’s supporters, her father’s non-supporters, etc. The tumour (Glio, as quoted above) is anthropomorphised here and often makes (morbid, somewhat animalistic) commentary. I actually kind of enjoyed that we get to hear from so many, er, living things, but I think it comes at an expense: the focus is so fractured that I didn’t find myself liking or sympathising with any of the characters.
The thing that didn’t work the most for me, however, was the voice. Vlahos’s writing style comes across as cold, clinical and matter-of-fact, and oftentimes I felt very… detached from the plot and the characters. It was like reading a very dry report — as sad as the situation was supposed to be, I was just unemotional.
This isn’t real life. Nothing on TV is real life. It is fiction. The only part of this that’s true is that my dad is dying, and that he is — that we are — being robbed of our privacy and dignity.
I think I was expecting something more grounded (as grounded as the premise could be, at least), more… ah, realistic? Perhaps more about death and cancer rather than, er, society. Yet the book veers more towards satire territory, kind of a social commentary on how ‘reality’ can be constructed and how that impacts the people behind that screen. I didn’t mind that, but it’s safe to say that it’s not exactly the book I thought I would be reading.
I can actually see people going either way with Life in a Fishbowl — the premise is unique, the storytelling is creative — but personally it left me feeling cold and ultimately unsatisfied, and I’m just not sure if I gained anything from reading it. I wasn’t entertained enough to call it fluff, and I wasn’t ‘enriched’ enough to call it educational. Not that a book has to have a ‘point’, though, so that’s on me.
* I received an ARC of LIFE IN A FISHBOWL from Bloomsbury Children in exchange for an honest review.