Since its publication in Australia last year, A.J. Betts’ Zac and Mia has received many awards, ranging from the Text Prize to the Crystal Kite Member Choice Award in New Zealand. Text Publishing, who publish Betts’ work, have won the small publisher of the year for the last three years in Australia, and this is reflected in the quality of the fiction which they publish. Zac and Mia, one of their newest offerings, has been so well received, and its cover is peppered with positive reviews.
Zac and Mia is heralded ‘a tender and funny novel that proves love can survive all sorts of circumstances’. The story which Betts has created is based upon that of a student on a cancer ward, whom she met whilst working in a Perth hospital.
The premise of Zac and Mia is appealing, and is sure to pique the interest of all of those who have cried over John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Zac and Mia, both teenagers, meet one another – mainly through digital means – whilst both are being treated on an adult cancer ward. Whilst the two are so different that in the ‘ordinary’ world they would not even speak to one another, ‘different rules apply’ in hospital which enable them to overcome such boundaries. ‘In one of these worlds,’ Betts tells us, ‘Zac needs Mia. And in the other Mia needs Zac. Or maybe they both need each other, always.’
Zac Meier has been ‘tired and sick’ for ages before he is admitted to hospital, ‘plucked from a maths lesson in period two’ and ‘bustled into the car with Mum and an overnight bag’. At the point in which the novel begins, he has been in hospital on and off for months, and is currently recovering from a bone marrow procedure. Zac, who has leukaemia, is a candid and brutally honest character, forever poking fun at himself: ‘I appear to be morphing into one of those creepy guys from Guess Who.’ He refers to himself as a ‘frequent flyer’ to the hospital, and has an ‘it could be worse’ mentality, which is quite refreshing to read. He talks us through his life in hospital, and tells of the way in which the ward acts when a new patient arrives: ‘Often, there’s nervous laughter at the grey stack of disposable urinals and bedpans, prompted by the naive belief the patient will never be weak enough or desperate enough to use them’. He also shows from the first how his illness has affected his family, and in particular his mother – the ward’s ‘Unofficial Welcoming Committee’ – who stays with him in the hospital: ‘Mum’s been here so long she’s forgotten she belongs somewhere else’.
Zac and Mia uses a dual stream-of-consciousness narrative technique; the majority of the story is told from Zac’s perspective, but as the book goes on, Mia also becomes a narrator. Betts’ writing style is engaging, and we get a real feel for the characters straight away. As Zac narrates much of the book in its beginning, he does feel far more real than Mia does. Despite the sections told from her own perspective, she remains largely enigmatic and at times is quite a shadowy being in the grand scheme of things. Both, however, are quite complex beings, and hold the interest of the reader throughout.
Comparisons to The Fault in Our Stars are nothing short of inevitable. In no way is it as touching or engrossing, but the dark humour throughout and the unpredictability of the whole makes Zac and Mia an absorbing and thought-provoking read. It is clear that Betts has researched this, her third novel, meticulously. Zac and Mia is marketed as a young adult novel, but there is a lot within it which makes it appropriate to be read – and remembered – by an older audience.