Hello Now

Authored by Jenny Valentine
Published by HarperCollins

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One of the most universal aspects of love is how its each instance is absolutely unique. I don’t just mean there are different types of love, of which, of course, there are, from storge and philia to eros and agape. No, I mean that, even within each species of adoration, while the structure and the milestones and the misdemeanours may appear the same to people looking in from the outside, the magic that animates each tryst, that brings it to fiery life, never previously existed until those exact people, at that exact time, locked eyes and interlocked souls. This is the truth at the heart of Hello Now. It’s what makes it so transcendent but also what keeps the reader at arm’s-length.

Written by Carnegie-shortlisted author Jenny Valentine, this is the story of a teen – ungendered throughout the book – named Jude. First, they are uprooted geographically when another one of their mother’s love affairs ends in failure and relocation. Then, they are uprooted entirely, when they happen upon Nova, a god-like, time-travelling boy whose very existence is magical and whose entire reason for being seems to be to love and be loved by them. This book is not really about the story though, it is a 200-page mediation on and metaphor for first love, its intimacy, its insanity and its inevitable implosion.

Hello Now’s greatest strength is its writing. It’s the sort of book you feel jealous reading because you know that despite having all the same words at your disposal, you will never be able to piece them together quite so beautifully. Like Salieri listening to Mozart. From a teacher’s point of view, this is probably one of its key values in the classroom, modelling how language can be used. It’s matryoshka doll sentences beg to have their complexity unpacked and I can see great value in lessons that magpie some of Valentine’s elaborate linguistic structures to use as frames and scaffolds for children’s own figurative writing.

So it’s not with the form but with the content where issues arise, as when it comes to first love, it’s different for everybody, or at least everybody assumes no one has ever felt as deeply and strongly as they do – that no one can truly relate. However, the whole premise of Hello Now requires and demands us to do exactly that, relate to Jude and Nova’s all-consuming desire for one another. Literature is full of great love affairs, which move the hearts and minds of readers by helping them understand the emotions painted onto the page. But Valentine doesn’t want us to just understand Jude and Nova’s love, she wants us to feel every painful, joyous, never-ending moment of it, as keenly and deeply as they do. She does a valiant job trying to make it so, but the magic that brings love alive can only truly be felt by those inside it. And so, the central relationship is blissfully beautiful and enviously epic but, ultimately, unrelatable.

The book’s arc splits into three parts: pre, during and post-Nova and some of them are more engaging than others. When we discuss love in real life, a common conversation starter is ‘How did you meet?’. Perhaps, when we’re closer to someone, we might ask ‘How do you feel?’ after a break-up. It’s rare that we ask each other ‘How was it to be in love?’. I think that’s because we know that this third answer can never really be put into words. It’s the same with Hello Now. The opening, the build-up to Nova’s arrival, is incredibly engaging, you are immediately drawn to love Jude, with their vulnerability hidden behind cynicism, and the narrative fizzes with potential. The last act brings some of this back, with the end of the affair landing real emotional blows as it describes the descent into and emergence out of the grief that spills from first love’s fatal wounds. It’s the middle, the romance itself, that while masterfully told, rings slightly hollow.

The twist in the Romeo and Juliet premise is that Nova is no ordinary boy. He is some sort of magical time-travelling creature who has searched space and time for his soulmate, who so happens to be Jude. He literally glows with power and magic, a power which he shares with Jude when they are together, allowing them to live in a bubble-like moment that expands and expands and expands until it does what all bubbles eventually do. The whole world reacts to his magic, seemingly bending around his will. Is Nova’s magic really magic though? It strikes me as a, very apt, representation of how we all view the person we first hoist up onto love’s pedestal, seeing them as uniquely wonderful in all creation and certain that all creation must feel the same way about them.

Hello Now also looks at how love makes a romantic of us all and how this humbling is an adolescent rite of passage. Jude starts off incredibly cynical about the very idea of love, due to the string of failed dalliances their mother leaves behind her as she drags Jude cross-country from one boyfriend to the next. They lament how their mother gives so much of herself to the other person that she forgets how to be a complete person on her own. This is then the exact precipice Jude finds themselves standing on the edge of. Do they jump and lose themselves completely, regardless of the consequences for those around them, or pull back, regardless of the consequences for them and Nova? We are given the answer in the first few pages, but it doesn’t make the moment any less painful.

I can see this book feeling profound and important to teenagers who are experiencing love for the first time, or enduring its aftermath, and I think it is a book that, if read at 14, 15, 16, 17, would stay in the memory for a lifetime. I also believe the decision – or rather indecision – around Jude’s gender gives some readers the freedom to read more relatable layers into the story. Despite all this, in the end, Hello Now leaves you with the feeling that love is an emotion that can never be truly translated into language, no matter how skilful the writer.