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All This Could End - Steph Bowe 3.5 starsOnce again, Text has crushed it with the gorgeous (and relevant) cover art - though you may have to take my word for it that it’s much more lovely in person than in a Goodreads thumbnail. The Pretty family are bank robbers, in the old-fashioned balaclava-wearing, gun-toting, vault-emptying style of heists. They move from town to town, never staying long in one place, lead by the Pretty matriarch: the mercurial and restless Sophia. Nina and her younger brother Tom were born into a life of crime and duplicity, but Nina is counting the days until she can legally flee the nest and live on her own terms. Nina is increasingly uncomfortable with her mother’s twisted moral code masquerading as Robin Hood style philanthropy, yet she’s also aware that she’s complicit in Sophia’s criminal agenda. The whole family is. And family, according to Sophia, is everything. Bowe takes an attention-grabbing concept (bank robbing family and their life on the road) and anchors it firmly in a deconstruction of dysfunctional families. The story switches back and forth between Nina and Spencer, both of whom are dealing with complicated home lives. Nina, craving the normalcy of life off the lam, and Spencer, navigating the emotional fallout of a family tragedy, both feel like outsiders in their own way. Nina has never been able to build real friendships; Spencer is awkward and a bit of a loner, besides his best friend Bridie. When their paths cross, Bowe sets in motion a chain of events that – we know from the prologue – will end in disaster. Bowe uses third person omniscient narration, and as such it’s her authorial voice that comes across most clearly. All This Could End is quirky, dryly humorous and a little bit tongue-in-cheek without belittling the concerns of her teenage characters. Because where Bowe excels is in writing authentic, believable characters attempting to navigate their transition into the adult world. The on-the-cusp sensation of adolescence is captured beautifully, with all the soul-searching and questioning of identity it entails, without waxing angsty. Nina and Spencer find in each other someone they can open up to – to an extent; Nina at least has secrets she can’t reveal. While the two main characters develop a relationship, romance is not a substantial part of the plot. Bowe shows the burgeoning closeness between Nina and Spencer, the tentative nature of their attraction and a few endearingly awkward moments as they manoeuvre towards each other, while remaining firmly focused on what this means for Nina and the choices she will have to make. All This Could End is fundamentally about the relationship between Nina and Sophia (and between Sophia and the family as a whole), and how it alters as Nina begins to comprehend the extent of her mother’s solipsism. Bowe handles the complexity and ambiguity of Sophia’s character well, and Nina’s confusion over whether her mother is a bad person or not is developed throughout the course of the novel. Sophia has an ability to justify her actions and obscure her selfishness that plausibly explains Nina’s difficulty in resisting her mother. While Nina initially seems somewhat passive, outwardly complying with her mother’s whims and actions, it’s clear to see how this is necessitated by Sophia’s manipulative nature. By choosing to wait it out until she’s eighteen, Nina is also picking her battles, opting for what seems to be the most failsafe method of escaping her mother’s hold. The missing piece here is Paul, Nina’s father. While Nina, Sophia and (to a lesser extent) Tom’s motivations and actions are clear and well explored in the novel, Paul’s reasons for adopting, pursuing and raising children in a life of crime with his wife remain vague. Bowe references Paul’s love for Sophia, and makes a passing comment on his upbringing, but this never feels sufficient to substantiate his choices. Sophia’s abuse of her role as a parent goes a long way to explain her influence over her children; yet Paul’s willing participation in Sophia’s schemes is the weak link in the story. It’s hard not to ask at least once while reading the novel why he’s never resisted or questioned their lifestyle. The pacing of the novel, while understandable in terms of the plot, is uneven and I would have liked to have seen some aspects of the story expanded on. Bowe lingers over certain scenes, then truncates periods of several months. I get this: Bowe is establishing her characters before thrusting them into the climax – but I felt some development of the story was abbreviated for the sake of the finale and extended epilogue. I might have felt more for that epilogue had I been able to spend more time with Spencer and Nina’s relationship as it progressed, and how they subsequently grew as individuals. That said, All This Could End was a refreshing take on familiar themes. Bowe appreciates and writes knowledgeably about the experience of being a teenager, with a slightly offbeat, conversational charm, a balance of humour and sensitivity. Definitely one to watch.