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Jem has seen the numbers as long as she can remember. All she has to do is look at a person --- a friend, acquaintance, or complete stranger --- and she sees a series of seemingly random numbers. But it wasn’t until her mother died from a drug overdose that Jem began to understand the chilling significance of the numbers she sees. For her mother’s number --- which Jem knows as well as she knows her mother’s face --- matches the date of her mother’s death.

Once Jem understands that the numbers she sees stand for the last day of a person’s life, she’s terrified to get close to anyone. Why would she when she already knows such intimate information, a piece of someone’s life story that they themselves don’t know --- or, in most cases, don’t want to know? So Jem sleepwalks through her life, through days at school and nights at her foster mother’s house, alone and haunted by the numbers.

That is, until a charismatic troublemaker nicknamed Spider crawls his way into Jem’s life in spite of herself. Spider is always running to stay one step ahead of the cops, school officials, and seriously no-good friends. But he also seems to genuinely care about her. Spider’s grandmother also draws Jem in; the deeply intuitive woman suspects her secret and encourages her to talk about it.

Jem, however, is terrified to share her secret; that is, until a horrific event prompts her to tell Spider the truth. The pair is visiting the London Eye when Jem notices that everyone she sees on the plaza by the giant ferris wheels has the same number --- today’s date. Fearing for her own and Spider’s safety, Jem grabs her friend and runs away, moments before a terrorist bomb explodes, killing dozens of people just as she foresaw.

Jem confesses her secret to a confused Spider, but the two soon realize that her mysterious gift (or curse) probably won’t make much difference to the police, who are on the hunt for two suspicious-looking teens seen running from the scene of the attack. Spider and Jem will have to use all their street smarts and intuition as they make a run for it. As Jem grows closer to Spider, she must balance her increasing affection with the knowledge of his own number, which indicates that his date of death is ominously soon.

Rachel Ward’s novel has an intriguing premise that will prompt self-reflection: If you could know the date of your death, would you want to have that knowledge? How would you live differently if you knew? And what if you had Jem’s talent? How would that change how you saw people? Would you, like Jem, feel guilt that “maybe meeting me had made it his last day.”

Beyond these sorts of provocative, speculative concerns, however, NUM8ERS also sheds light on parts of working-class British culture about which many American readers might be unaware. Jem, Spider and their multi-ethnic families occupy a largely invisible space on the margins of society, one that --- like Jem’s numbers --- might only become visible if readers look it directly in the eyes. Ward’s novel does exactly that, and after spending time with this memorable heroine, compelling premise and cliffhanger ending, readers will be more than eager for the sequel, THE CHAOS, scheduled to be published soon.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 18, 2011

by Rachel Ward

  • Publication Date: February 1, 2010
  • Genres: Urban Fantasy
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: The Chicken House
  • ISBN-10: 0545142997
  • ISBN-13: 9780545142991