Recently released from a mental hospital, Olive Corbett becomes convinced that the new girl in her year, Miranda Vaile, is a shapeshifter: a parasitic being that takes on the physical attributes and mannerisms of its host, while draining them of their vitality and spirit. When Miranda latches on to Olive’s ex-best friend Katie, Olive knows she has to do something, but what can she do when everyone knows that Olive’s crazy and shapeshifters don’t exist?
Just like Miranda Vaile, Shift is not as it first appears. This 2012 Gold Inky award winning novel from Australian Em Bailey starts off as a clichéd teen sci-fi thriller and by page 50, I was convinced I had figured out every single plot twist for the rest of the book. Of course Olive will end up with Lachlan, the good looking life saver, but not before one or more of the “shock twists” that are inevitable in books with mentally unstable narrators. I was at the point of congratulating myself on being so clever and wondering if I should bother keeping on reading, when suddenly all of my predictions came true and I was only at the mid-point of the book. That’s when I realised that I’d been set up and Bailey had me right where she wanted me.
With everything “obvious” already having happened in the first half of Shift, readers are left wondering what could possibly happen next in the second half, and as a result, everything that follows is a real surprise. It’s a stunt I don’t remember seeing before and one I suspect few writers would be game to try, but Bailey pulls it off perfectly. By using sci-fi and thriller tropes to lull readers into a false sense of security, Bailey manipulates her readers so that they are at the point of genuinely wondering if Miranda could be a shapeshifter after all. And when the answer is finally revealed it doesn’t seem obvious at all.
Admittedly, some of the subplots are handled with less finesse than the main plot. The blossoming romance between Olive and Lachlan still feels trite, even after the mid-point ‘shift’. I could never figure out why Lachlan would waste so much time going after Olive when she spends most of the book rejecting him, and I assume that the only reason Bailey included this sub-plot was because she felt in some way obliged to do so given her target audience. Furthermore, Bailey spends so much time setting up the fact that Olive did something ‘unforgiveable’ that caused her father to desert her family that, when the truth is revealed, it is a major let down. Yet, these are relatively minor sub-plots and the rest of the novel is solid enough for them to be overlooked.
Verdict: Like a shapeshifter, Shift lulls you into a false sense of security and then gets into your head. Once it’s gotten hold of you, there’s no escaping the clutches of this highly engrossing thriller.