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Real Life, Ella West

June 5, 2011

Real Life Book blurb

‘They call me a finder.  I find places for the Project.  I can think about a place in my head and then I am there. It’s called traveling.’

Despite their gifts, Nicky and her fellow travellers are back at the Project.  They’ve been issued with new tracking bracelets that can’t be removed, leaving them all feeling trapped and betrayed.

But Nicky won’t be confined.  She continues to brood on escape, but discovers a swim team in the nearby town, returning to what she loves.  But for how long will the Project tolerate her small slice of freedom?

Meanwhile, the Project is caught up in sinister, questionable affairs.  When terrorist threaten, Nicky is sent to the dangerous heart of the matter.

No longer afraid of her remarkable abilities, and no longer willing to let others decide for her, Nicky is on the brink of retrieving her own real life.

But destructive forces close in …

In her trademark taut, suspenseful prose, Ella West brings the ‘Thieves’ trilogy to a chilling conclusion.

[Back cover, Ella West (2009) Real Life.  Longacre Press: Dunedin.]

Real Life First Page


For a whole week we were free.  Free to make our own decisions about what to eat, where to stay, what to do – but now it’s over.  The Project has us all back again.

All except me, Nicky.

They call me a finder.  I find places for the Project.  I can think about a place in my head and then I am there. It’s called travelling.  I’m not a seeker. I can’t seek out people, except Paul, my boyfriend, and now Jake, because I care about him, too, but somehow in a different way.  However, places are not important. People are. I know that now.

As well as Paul and Jake, there is Jake’s younger sister Shelley, and also Tina, who is Jake’s girlfriend.  We’re all teenagers; we can all do this travelling thing. Paul and Jake and Tina are seekers.  Shelley is like me, a finder.  We were taken by the Project, Jake and Shelley from Canada, Tina from England, Paul from the States and….”

[p6, Ella West (2009) Real Life.  Longacre Press: Dunedin.]

This last statement continues, p7, “…me from New Zealand, and brought here to its desert base against our will so it could train us and make us do whatever it wants.  Steal things. It made us into thieves.”

Themes in the novel


Possible directions for study/questions to apply to Real Life:

All the questions applied to the first two books of this trilogy could as well be applied here – or at least be better understood within the fuller context of the whole trilogy.  Refer to my blogs on Thieves and Anywhere But Here for these questions.

Consider also:  

Characterisation and relationships in the novel:

  • Refer to my earlier blogs for other questions/comments in this regard
  • There is an interest in ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ in this novel.  This binary is referred to a couple of times [For example: “‘There’s no good and no bad, Paul.  Things are never that easy. People always do things for a reason.  Whether what they do seems good or bad depends if you agree with them or not, whether their actions are going to result in you getting hurt or not.'” (p49)  Or, another example, voiced by an apparent government operative (and adult), “‘You know how to find the bad guys, stop the good guys dying?'” (p149)].
  • How important are parents, friends, swim coaches, …loved ones? This novel makes mention of them several times. The novel even ends with Nicky reconnecting with her parents.  How does this ending ‘resolve’ the crises of the trilogy? What crises does this ending ‘make right’? Consider their role in birthday parties, Christmas celebrations, the desire to win at a swim meet (all of which are described by Nicky during the novel). One way of unpacking this idea might be to analyse the role of Abigail in the novel (the little girl who disappears in North Carolina (pp111+)).  She turns out only to have been hiding from her parents, but this way of interacting with her parents means that Abigail causes Nicky to miss her birthday party – a party which holds huge personal significance for her.  Why include this story in the novel? To what purpose?
  • How does Nicky view herself differently at the end of the trilogy? What has changed for her?
  • Consider Nicky’s discovery that she can travel to anyone.  She describes it in this way: “I feel as if I have been swallowed up. As if there is no longer any me.  There is only what exists around me: events, places. And people defining me, wanting me to be what they want. Seeing in me, Nicky, only what they want to see.” (p58) What does this discovery change for her? What significance do her abilities have and how do they shape her understanding of the people around her?
  • What are we invited to think of Paul? Of the Guardian? Of Jake, Tina and Shelley?
  • A number of stories are told and some turn out not to have been true (like the death of Nicky’s parents).  In hindsight, what does the reader think of the Guardian’s claim that Paul’s mother died? What does the reader suspect in terms of other ‘stories told’? Are we invited to question Paul’s loyalty, or his ability to detect a lie?
  • Paul is so desperate to connect with his parents. How does this influence his choices, do we think? Why do we think this?
  • Nicky is also desperate to find her way back to friends and family. How is Paul contrasted with Nicky? What about Jake?
  • What does swimming reveal about Nicky? Consider: “…entering a meet, even in some obscure corner of the world, means the chance of someone recognising me from my New Zealand swimming days and then if I did well, what next? Where would it end? My future’s not my own any more.  Just because I’m good at swimming, doesn’t mean I have to do it.  I have no country to win medals for.” (p90)
  • On this note, how does swimming build a social network around Nicky? What meaning does it provide? What security does it give her? How is swimming in the Project different to her experience at home in New Zealand? Consider: “‘You swim for your club,’ I say. ‘For your family, your school, whoever.  You make them proud, make them happy.  When you’re good enough, you swim for your country. But that’s all it’s about. You’re not saving lives or making a difference or anything.'” (p99)
  • In a similar vein, consider how watching the All Blacks play Wales changes Nicky’s relationship with the people in town; how it introduces her to a community outside of the Project… again, what role is sport playing in terms of identity, social connections, etc.?

Place in the novel:

  • As mentioned in my earlier blogs, place is interesting in this novel, largely because it is almost never described.  In contrast, something more of the ‘community’ surrounding the Project is described in this, the final book of the trilogy.  The landscape is mapped out and peopled.  We are given a sense of the distance between the Project and its town; the local bar, the swimming pool, houses, garages, kids on bikes -certain of these houses are even connected to specific people (like Sol).  We are also given a sense of the desert surrounding the Project as Nicky explores it more towards the end of the novel.  What do these settings add to the story? How do they shape our imagination? How do they influence our understanding of Nicky’s needs/wants/desires (in terms of family and community – and ‘normalcy’ for example)?
  • What does Nicky experience in the desert? What does it offer her?
  • Equally, what does Nicky experience in the pool? What does it offer her?
  • How many settings are there in this trilogy? List them. In each setting, what does Nicky experience? Who forms a part of these settings (what characters does Nicky interact with there)? How do these settings work?
  • How does the garden change (psychologically) in this novel? How is it perceived differently? What meanings are attached anew?


  • As asked earlier, but with the whole trilogy now in mind, is this a coming-of-age story? What makes it so? What is maturity in this novel? What signals adulthood/independence? What is a teenager and what are normal/typical experiences for a teenager?
  • How does the writing of this trilogy compare with the construction of Conspiracies?  In earlier blogs, I have mentioned some of the narrative theory that surrounds Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories. These are worth reading in order to revisit the choice of language/ perspective/ characterisation/ descriptions/ information made by the author in the creation of this trilogy.
  • What does the continued mention of John Marsden’s Tomorrow When The War Began series offer the reader? Nicky reads the whole series in her time at the Project.  It seems to offer both escape and at times sympathy… Consider: “It’s early, but I snuggle into bed with the next book in the John Marsden series.  It is good and exactly what I need to keep my mind off tomorrow.” (p84) What reading conventions does this intertextuality ask the reader to draw on?


  • As mentioned in earlier blogs, the language used in this trilogy is specific to the story being told. Refer to the other blogs for more, but definitely consider: How does the language help create the novel? How does it add to our sense of institutional and governmental domination?


  • What are we to make of Nicky’s choices at the end of the novel (regarding Paul, Jake and the other travellers)?
  • What are we invited to make of the Project each time Nicky, a 15 year old girl, is exposed to violence as a result of their work? What of the torture of Paul (and then Nicky) at the beginning of Real Life (when the Project is hoping to catch Nicky again)? What of the shootings? The explosions? The witnessing of death and destruction?
  • How do these experiences connect to Nicky’s final phone call to her parents?
As I think of things to add, it will show up under the Ella West or Thieves tags, to be found in the word cloud to the right.

Texts that invite comparison

Having started with the rest of the trilogy…

Dreamhunter (friendship):

As mentioned in my blog on  Anywhere But Here, it might be interesting to compare this trilogy with the Dreamhunter sequence, by Elizabeth Knox (in terms of friendship). What does friendship look like? What purpose does friendship serve? In terms of character growth, personal security?

The Changeover (first love, story, language):

Again, as mentioned in my blog on  Anywhere But Here, this trilogy is written in a very specific style.  The language is dominated by dialogue and internal monologue; it is simple, direct, lacking in adjectives; the dialogue is largely purposeful (instructional or questioning).  It is active, make-things-happen language; it is agentic, but pressured language… I think?  It is language that keeps up the suspense, the urgency, the uncertainty.  It would be worth comparing the style of this novel with Margaret Mahy’s style in The Changeover.  The language Mahy uses in that novel is more a ‘language of narrative’; of ‘story-telling’…. The language of Anywhere But Here, in contrast is the language of urgency, response and action (action without time to ruminate)… But, both novels have adolescence and ‘adolescent first love’ as a feature of the plot… so what is different about these novels?  How is adolescence described? How is this experience of first love shared with the reader (what emotions are called into play – and how does this story arc pan out?)? The differences between these novels ought to prove revealing!!!

Alex (sport and community in literature):

The swimming may seem an obvious and hollow connection, but Tessa Duder’s Alex series may provide interesting comparisons.  How does swimming change the adolescent? How does it ‘help’ them grow? What does sport offer in terms of social meaning? (this last question is the one I like – and it could as easily connect this text to other texts that explore sport… VM Jones Buddy or Juggling With Mandarins, for example…)

September 11 (discursive framework of terrorism):

Again, it may seem an obvious and hollow connection, but the novel’s depiction of terrorists bringing down passenger planes on United States soil in an attempt to change American foreign policy absolutely brings 9/11 into play here.  The crashing of the planes into the Twin Towers (and elsewhere) on September 11, 2001 has become a symbol for terrorism throughout the English speaking world. The narrative that surrounds 9/11 as an event and the narrative of the Thieves trilogy share a discursive framework and are worth exploring alongside each other. What aspects of that ‘event’ and all surrounding reportage enter into our imagination as we read this book? How does the social imaginary direct our engagement with the events and characters of this novel through our knowledge of that event in history? Note that we are approaching the 10 year anniversary of this event… Note also that there are a number of conspiracy theories surrounding this event and involving government agencies, international organisations, etc.  It could be worth comparing this ‘actual’ reportage and the storytelling that surrounds 9/11 with the style of storytelling adopted by Ella West for this trilogy.  What aspects of storytelling (language, characterisation, setting, interpretation, etc) connect the telling of the 9/11 story with the creation of Nicky’s story through the Thieves trilogy?

Expressions of Power in Literature (Big Brother, community)…

As mentioned in my blogs on Thieves and Anywhere But Here, this concept of a ‘Big Brother‘ with international reach and influence is an interesting threat and a social concern that invites comparison with other texts that also explore such power (Robert Cormier….).  The Project’s authoritarian domination of these teenagers presents the reader with an expression of power that is worth considering (as mentioned in earlier blogs, Roberta Seelinger Trites has very interesting things to say about the exploration of power in the genre of adolescent literature).  This concept of a ‘Big Brother‘ with international reach is an interesting threat and a social concern that invites comparison with other texts that also ‘work through’ this ‘issue’.  The way in which terrorism and governmental control is experienced in the Thieves trilogy connects to this concern – and is more fully explored in the final book, Real Life. It might be interesting to consider this concern in terms of how it connects to the two other themes evident in these novels, ‘teenagers’ or ‘adolescence’ and ‘family’ or social networks/community.  How does a ‘Big Brother’ influence the power of our community to keep us safe? What is safety? How are we to define community in a ‘modern’ world of international terrorism and invisible authority?

Tomorrow When the War Began (genre, intertextuality, reading conventions):

The trilogy persists with an intertextual relationship with John Marsden’s Tomorrow When The War Began series… I confess I haven’t read it yet, though I do want to.  Is there more to this connection? Is it worth exploring?

How to use this blog

Mindmaps help me think critically.  They help me see the links between things and plot a course through all the observations and questions that a text provokes when I read it ‘as a text.’  This blog is a mindmap of sorts; full of random thoughts and relevant-seeming quotations or ideas.

  • There is a tag cloud to the right of the blog, which shows the topics I am exploring as ‘tags.’
  • You can also use the search bar at the bottom of the page to see if a particular word/book/author/theme is mentioned.
  • Each time I bring a NZ author into the discussion for the first time, I add an “Introducing the author” blog. This is easily found at the beginning of the section under that author.
  • I have a section titled ‘Blog Notes’ in which I explain my blogging style.
  • I have a ‘Literary Resources’ section which includes general ideas on literature and its study as well as the questions I apply to any text I study.
  • These questions (eg. Character Questions) may be useful to any other reader wishing to look at this text differently (refer to very early on in the blogging history of this section).
  • I absolutely welcome discussion: comments, suggestions, ideas, criticisms… please do!

Wests’s Thieves: a History

Awards won:  

None as yet…

Publishing History:

First published by Longacre Press (now owned by Random House), 2009, this is the last book in a trilogy. The first book is Thieves, the second book is Anywhere but here

Bibliography of secondary literature:

Author information:

Refer earlier blog: Introducing Ella West  

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