The letter, when it lands on Seb’s doormat, manages to be both celebratory and commanding. Sent on behalf of the HappyHead project, it congratulates 17-year-old Seb on being selected for a pioneering programme designed to eradicate teenage unhappiness. It’s an immersive 13-day course of challenges and assessments, and by the way, attendance is mandatory. A timely exploration of our 21st century preoccupation with happiness, HappyHead by Josh Silver launches us into a government-endorsed mental health bootcamp. What in the name of dystopian thrillers could go wrong?
We join Seb en route to the campus, he and his younger sister, Lily, engaged in the low-level bickering so seemingly intrinsic to family car journeys, the general atmosphere providing clues to a family dynamic that will bear some significance later on.
In the front passenger seat, his mother exudes a nervous energy that manifests itself in statements about her son’s lack of direction, ‘You needed a little boost didn’t you? What with your grades dropping.’ Did he, she wonders, remember to declare his childhood bedwetting on the induction form?
Meanwhile, Lily makes sly asides about Seb’s sexuality. She’s a sadist, he tells us, blackmailing him over an issue his parents are oblivious to.
Red flags continue to wave at the reader once Seb arrives at the HappyHead institute. In this apparently randomly selected group of the nation’s teenagers, he is microchipped just above the collarbone, to monitor his ‘health.’ He will also be expected to undertake some gruelling tasks, designed to test his endurance to the max. At least there’s the promised reward of happiness, Seb thinks, and ergo success.
But one member of the group is not so acquiescent; an ice-eyed boy, with a lightning bolt tattoo, whose startling discoveries will pit them both against a chillingly evil conspiracy.
Recommended for fans of The Maze Runner and The Hunger Games, HappyHead is a clever dystopian thriller, interwoven with a wonderfully empathic LGTBQ subplot and satisfyingly set up for a sequel (due 2024)
HappyHead by Josh Silver is published by Rock the Boat, 400 pages.