First of all, let's address the obvious, something this novel’s press release recognises straight away. On the surface, Everything About You is in danger of being a retread of the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back.” Tech capable of recreating the personality of a lost loved one? Check. A protagonist who agonises over whether to keep or discard that technology? Check.
Luckily, Heather Child takes this idea to a brand new place. Whereas in Black Mirror the app in question only worked on what the person had left behind on social media, in Everything About You, the tech is much smarter and consequently more dangerous. Child wastes no time introducing her novum—called a smartface—to the reader and, in fact, she wastes no time with anything: Everything About You has the most efficient opening I have read in quite some time.
A prologue introduces us to Ruby, as she walks stormy night-time streets only to be bundled into the back of a car. Kidnapped. This sequence is revealed to be a combination of dream and memory in the mind of our protagonist, Freya—a dream from which she is awakened by her smartface. In the first chapter we are introduced to the tech with which Freya interacts on a daily basis: wallpaper that acts as a computer screen, displaying everything from social media to pleasing scenery; smart glasses that augment your reality to make it tolerable; a Halo-type headset that allows you to become fully immersed in a virtual world of your choosing, be it games or something a little more ... niche.
The same chapter also introduces the reader to Freya's flatmate and ex-boyfriend Julian, to whom the Smartface and headset belong—both presents from his father, who, as a few deft words from Child lets us know, doesn't have a great relationship with his son. Julian re-gifts the smartface to Freya as he “can't be assed with chatbots” (p. 4). He does, however, hold on to the headset and takes it into his room—which is described as having “mulchy aromas” (p. 4), making it clear from the start that, whatever he does in there, he does a lot of it and it isn't savoury.
Also, we see that Freya has a tentative relationship with tech and has already seen the dangers of the smartface. Her workmate Chris is described as being “virtually in love with his” (p. 4), and lets it take over most aspects of his life. Chris has his device set to the personality of Prince George, who he fancies something rotten. (We can extrapolate from this that we must be around fifteen years in the future at least, that is if we are make that little nugget of information palatable.)
In the first chapter we also get a sense of how much Freya hates her job at the IKEA-alike U-Home, something which is only made worse when she gets demoted from sales to catering after her slimy boss introduces a hologram assistant who can use customers’ online data to automatically find the ideal product for each individual. We also find out that Freya is only in this job after she had to drop out of college due to her virtual reality phobia: nearly all of her course involved using virtual reality, but she hasn't been able to use it since the day Ruby, Freya’s lost foster-sister and the figure from that dream, went missing. Freya was meant to go home that day, but instead played a VR game at her friend's house all night—and she believes that is why Ruby left the house: to look for her. Every time since then that she has put on a VR headset, Freya has had a panic attack, because to do so reminds her of that night. The chapter closes, however, with Chris convincing Freya that she'll benefit from the smartface. When she accepts, we discover that the personality which the smartface has randomly chosen is Ruby’s.
All this takes place within twenty pages. Not a word wasted. This makes for a strong, strong start—and is the ideal way for a debut novel to get its reader hooked. After such a masterful introduction, the rest of the book doesn't disappoint. Through flashbacks we learn more about Ruby; Freya met her at a Conversation Hub, a sort of meeting place for youths, when she moved to London from Lincolnshire. Freya saw her originally as one of the “naughty group, the girls who sat on the wall in tiny skirts, smoking.” But it is soon apparent that she is different. She's not bothered what the rest of the group thinks—she’s a bit of a geek but she’s not geeky, rather just generally “cool.” It soon becomes apparent that Ruby's homelife isn't great. Her mother is an alcoholic who, through complications with her addiction, has developed a type of dementia. As a result of this, she eventually moves in with Freya and her mum Esther, with Esther finally fostering her. (This is not, it appears, the first time that Esther has fostered.) The two girls become like sisters.
So, when Ruby disappears it hits Freya (and Esther) hard. When the smartface takes on Ruby's personality, as much as it hurts Freya that her foster sister is suddenly with her again, she can't quite give it up, even when she is told to by her mother—because she has convinced herself that it couldn't be so realistic if Ruby wasn't still out there, feeding information into the system. But her mum is adamant:
"Make sure you uninstall the personality straight away ... "
"You don't even want to look into it." It's an accusation.
Her mum draws air steadily into her lungs , fortifying her reply. "I have looked into it, hundreds of times, believe me. I'm sorry, but Ruby died long ago. If anyone finds her ... there won't be much left." (p. 57)
Child doesn't splurge all her information at once from hereon in. Instead, she deftly seeds important facts throughout, drip-feeding exactly what the reader needs to know, when they need to know it. This is the mark of a good writer: one who gives you the information without you realising it. The same is true of the way Child handles flashbacks; there are plenty of them, but they never slow down the story or seem like infodumps, but rather add to the pace.
Ruby, or rather the smartface with Ruby's personality, starts to become a big influence on Freya in much the same way that she was when they were children. She encourages her to break rules, blag food, explore places she's never been, and just generally to come out of herself. But Freya also makes the smartface work for her, telling it to search the internet for the actual Ruby through social media posts that may belong to Ruby writing under a pseudonym, through satellite footage and so on. Meanwhile, the smartface encourages her to forget about Julian and move on, setting up a profile on a dating app. This is when Child first takes us to Medieville, a part of the city that is tech free, where people visit or go to live, either as a novelty or simply to get away from the constant insidious surveillance that comes with living out their lives via the internet.
Medieville becomes a big part of the story from hereon in, but Freya's first encounter doesn't exactly enamour her with the place. Heading there on a date, the first thing she actually ends up doing is releasing a woman, Gayle, from the stocks in which she has been locked for accidentally yanking out a wire when fixing a pipe. Gayle thinks this was a bit harsh, as nobody really uses electricity in Medieville, “except for the zombies.” When Freya gets to her date, she is surprised to find that not only is the guy nothing like he appeared online (obvs), but he's brought along a posse. Panicking and believing she's about to be attacked, she makes a run for it—only to discover once she's home that the group thing is common and was actually stipulated in her exchanges with her prospective date. She just wasn't au fait with the terminology.
She only goes back to Medieville a second time, however, when Ruby finds someone who matches Ruby's description. Unfortunately, she soon discovers it isn't her but rather the woman she released from the stocks, Gayle—to whom Freya then explains her situation. Gayle is encouraging and tries to help her find Ruby, asking around Medieville for a person matching the missing woman’s description. When they can't find her, Gayle leaves—and Freya is left alone in a Medieville pub where she soon finds herself walking down into its dungeon to join a large group of people (the aforementioned “zombies”) who are playing a VR game called Yearnfield:
It makes her feel smug to be walking among the zombies without being one of them. Outsmart the system, Ruby would say. The main thing is to avoid crashing into people. It is easier near the wall, where players sit on benches, their hands jerking out as they gesticulate or eat imaginary food. Are they contorted with laughter or being poisoned? (p. 185)
The inclusion of Yearnfield at this point in the novel allows Child to really have some fun with her story. In the game, players can roam around a place akin to medieval England, so when Freya inevitably joins the game—spurred on by the voice of Ruby in her head—Child has a chance to change the setting of the novel dramatically. We go from a near-future, missing person, tech-based novel, to what is essentially a fantasy book. Still, and despite the Ruby voice in her head, Freya begins to panic when she realises she can't get out of the game; nobody has told her how.
The cellar has vanished, and what she sees is all-encompassing... Her hands go to her temples but she cannot feel her visor. There's no gap when she looks down. Normally there's a command ... (p. 189)
She stumbles through the game, unsure who is real and who is merely an in-game avatar. Either way, neither character type seems keen to help her. Eventually, she has to whip off her headset, causing her to become disorientated—so she leaves the game and Medieville in a panic not dissimilar to last time, except that now Freya has been hardened by her experiences.
This is the turning point in the book. Now, Freya is ready to finish what she has started and, with her smartface by her side, she sets out to just that. However, as you might have guessed, it doesn't exactly go smoothly.
In all the best missing person books, there is a motivation beyond merely the desire to find the missing person. Here, it is guilt and, whether it's justified or not, this guilt pushes Freya forward, making her more determined to find her sister. The novel explores how sometimes we only need a nudge to send us spiralling, and that's what Freya does: spirals down into a world that we could easily populate with seedier, present-day concerns. And, when Freya finds herself trapped, the book also explores how there are always people ready to prey on the vulnerable.
This episodic structure allows Child the room to do a great job of constantly upping the stakes. Throughout the book the message is, 'Tech is good, but be careful how much you use it”—and that's the lesson Freya is forced to learn. From her initial dalliances with Yearnfield to her later discovery that it's easy to get caught up in the game and lose track of time, Freya learns, in an escalation of what many of us already now, that you never quite know who else is on the other end of the internet.
But the best thing about this book is what I mentioned before: Child never makes you feel as if you are being force-fed information—despite, on reflection, the main action being interrupted many times by backstory. Although on the surface this book looks like any number of run-of-the-mill missing person books, albeit with a liberal sprinkling of SF throughout, this novel is really a study of grief and how we cope with it. For every fancy gadget she introduces, or fun set-piece Freya encounters in Yearnfield, Child allows us to experience the novel through the eyes of someone who, even after years, is still coming to terms with the loss of her foster sister. Everything About You shows us how oftentimes we can beat ourselves up over things we did or didn't do during the events leading up to the death of a loved one—and how, in trying to deal with our guilt, we can hurt those around us.
Heather Childs’ debut, then, is a perfect mix of mystery, SF, and fantasy—but with enough emotional heft to squeeze tears out of the hardest heart. If this is what she can throw at us on her first try, I can't wait to see what she comes up with next.