Zac & Mia by A. J. Betts

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Text Publishing, 2013. ISBN 978 1922147257.
(Age: 14+) Highly recommended. Cancer. Hospital. With an assurance emanating from extensive research and interviews, Amanda Betts' latest novel takes the reader into a cancer ward, intertwining the intricacies of treatment with the personalities of the patients and staff, overlaid by the passing of time, time some do not have, time that moves slowly for others, waiting for treatments to take hold, waiting while marrow transplants kick in, isolated from the outside world lest an infection is picked up.
This powerful novel has two protagonists, in rooms next to each other, tapping on the wall between them, finally having Facebook and email contact, with which to carefully gather information about each other, studiously avoiding talk of their reason for being in the ward. It is rivetting stuff.
Mia is strongly opposed to her treatment and refuses to accept her cancer, horrified at the unfairness of it all. She rails against her mother and the staff when talking of the operation she must have and kicks them out of her room.
Her operation is the same day that Zac leaves, his treatment completed. He returns home to his parents' alpaca and olive tree farm in the south west of Western Australia, and Zac gets on with his life, that is, until Mia turns up alone, on crutches, ill and asking for money.
The relationships between parents and offspring is masterfully done, none is perfect, each is trying to salve the mood of the other, one being overly protective, one rejected for allowing an operation that removes her lower limb. Zac's mother stays with him in his room for extended periods of time while Mia actively discourages her mother from visiting.
Each page breathes with incredible detail, as Betts lays open the reality of living with cancer. Each of the main characters has their highs and lows, Mia's lows more frequent as she feels betrayed, but both having to cope with something beyond their experience. I love the way Zac has statistics at his fingertips, quoting numbers giving survival rates, and percentages of people who would get cancer, the number who will be diagnosed that day, the number who would hear the chilling news. This adds a level of information that is not obvious, but part of Zac's way of coping.
In the background Zac's aunt has had breast cancer, Zac and Mia's friend in the ward, Cam, dies, initiating their going to his funeral, the catalyst for Mia's return to hospital.
Tightly plotted, unerringly real, informative and above all, engrossing, this book will be picked up by secondary readers and adults alike, wanting to read of older teens caught up in the mechanics of a disease which affects all of us. It is told with humour and compassion, a story of enduring friendship born out of a dual fight against their cancer.
Fran Knight
Editor's note: Background to writing the novel can be found at Kids' Book Review.