Written for the 'young adult' market, Inventing Elliot deals with something everyone goes through; finding a place for themselves in society.
For Elliot Sutton, the job is particularly tough. His father's a wreck in the aftermath of a brutal mugging, his mother's run ragged and desperate for cash, and he's small for his age. His lack of confidence and security marks him out as a victim and a magnet for bullies and thugs.
When his father's government compensation pays for a fresh start for the family, Elliot reinvents himself; a fresh image, a cool haircut, a place in his new school's swimming team. His aim – to stand out just enough to fit in, to pass unnoticed by the agencies that secretly police his new environment. But his plan misfires, and he soon finds himself co-opted into the ranks of The Guardians, the school's unofficial elite. Now he's the one who must punish the misfits, the freaks and the victims. Prey has become predator.
Gardner is excellent on character and relationship. Elliot's alliance with a younger boy who reminds him of his earlier self is tenderly drawn, as is his tentative relationship with the bright but virginal Louise, and there's a powerful portrait of a vulnerable English teacher who tries to get behind Elliot's increasingly inflexible mask.
But the plotting is not quite so strong. The novel takes too long to build up to Elliot's central moral conundrum, and its eventual outcome is anti-climactic, with important elements of the storyline left unresolved. Its influences (primarily Orwell's 1984) are a little too visible in places and we never really learn much about the human motivation behind the sinister Guardians' philosophy of control.
Nevertheless, this debut novel offers a powerful insight into the masks and armour we assume in an effort to defend ourselves from danger, and the moral sacrifices we make in order to maintain an illusion of security.
:: Clare O'Brien