Book Review: The Eternal Return of Clara Hart, Louise Finch

Spence and Anthony have been friends for years, but it’s only when he witnesses a classmate die in what looks like a tragic accident at a house party that a flicker in the fabric of time helps Spence ‘see’ Anthony for the first time.

When Spence wakes up to the same day again and sees Clara, the girl who died, alive and well, it’s clear he’s been granted a second chance. And a third. And a fourth… 

Caught in a loop, condemned to experience the same 24 hours over and over, Spence tries to prevent the terrible events of the party.

To break the spell he has to re-evaluate everything he previously took for granted and find the courage to call out his own and others complicity in events that marked the life and death of Clara Hart.

A startling time loop novel: beneath the horror of Spence reliving the same day over and over, a day clouded in layers of pain and tragedy, is a surprisingly powerful message about toxic masculinity and banter. A fantastic inclusion for the YOTO Carnegie Medal.

What I Liked

  • Spence’s narrative voice which felt convincing and authentic
  • The time loop, which can be a repetitive structure, was done really well as Spence seemed to relive the same day as if it were different genres – tragedy, horror, romance – before finding ‘the key’ to escaping it
  • The social and moral message which feels very timely and necessary.

What Could Have Been Different

  • Just occasionally the language and depiction of sixth form school and teenagers’ parties felt more influenced by American television than English reality… but I am speaking as a teacher so I may be being rather picky!

It’s been a few years since I made a concerted effort to shadow the Carnegie Medal – the YOTO Carnegoe Medal as it is now. I used to run a book club at school that shadowed it, and have come across some real gems, but life got busy, work got busy and that was one thing that came to an end… and the Carnegie shortlist’s release coincides with the Women’s Prize release and there are only so many hours in a day!

But, the Carmegie has introduced me to some favourite authors and some of the best books I have read. Not the best YA books, but the best books. And, I have to say, that Clara Hart is in that list. I found it genuinely touching and compelling and powerful.

The novel is a time loop: Spence relives one Friday over and over, like Groundhog Day. We don’t relive entire lives like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life or Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, just a single day.

An eternal Friday that never reaches the weekend is horror enough for anyone. But James Spencer’s day is appalling from the start: it is the anniversary of his mother’s death; his car is bumped by the eponymous Clara Hart; his best friend’s party is somewhat awkward; Clara gets hit by a car and dies horrifically in front of him. And he wakes up to relive the same horror all over again.

Spence’s – and the reader’s – gut reaction is that time will heal itself when whatever went wrong with the day is corrected. I mean, I grew up loving Quantum Leap – though I’ve not seen the new one – so I felt that this was familiar territory. Save the girl, restart time. Spence’s problem is that Clara is not a friend, simply a girl at school, and a girl who thinks he is a prick. A girl who doesn’t want to spend time with him. And he only has, what, sixteen hours to get to know her enough to keep her safe.

Amd this is, perhaps, the issue that Finch addresses: boys in this book do not get to know people. They judge them. They rate them on a one-to-five scale of hotness. They play shag-date-murder. They interact with them in the same way you would interact with an item or a tool. They don’t engage with them. Obviously, we learn a lot more about Clara as the novel progresses, but Hannah / Jane, the till girl in the off licence where the boys stock up on alcohol, was another telling character. The fact that she had a life, interests, an identity, feelings, a name outside her role as the till girl took Spence by surprise.

Spence, however often we are told that he is actually smart, is rather dense at times: he assumed that Clara fancied his best mate Anthony even when all the evidence suggested that she despised him. To be fair, Anthony did sleep with her at the first party, but everything else screamed out this there was something wrong… including the fact that she fled the party into the path of an oncoming car! Even when Spence and Clara connect and Spence recognises that he has feelings for her, he still assumes she wants Anthony.

And Finch does give Spence the chance to be Bill Murray and turn this into a romcom – and actually the Friday where that romance blossoms is genuinely sweet and touching and Finch could have stopped there. Love conquers the timeloop… but the day even though it is perfect still resets. It’s almost as if Spence is trying to work out what genre he is in! One replay is compared to a Tarantino film: the more Spence tries to safeguard his friends, the more gore, blood and injury happens.

Because Spence is not there as a romantic lead, nor a white Knight on a quest to save anyone. Spence is there to learn about himself – his own toxic masculinity and his friends’, his own culpability in what Anthony does, his own lost chances to stand up to Anthony and say – broadly – mates don’t let mates act like Weinstein. And in this moral, or personal or spiritual, journey, Finch felt to me closer to the spirit of A Christmas Carol than anything else.

And it does say something – something very positive – about a book that I find it hard not to make comparisons and find echoes of other narratives in there…

There were a few moments in the book that did jar for me. Anthony as a spoilt rich boy in a mansion apparently without parental support or supervision felt like an awkward trope, and felt rather American. As did the depiction of the school, the philosophy lessons, students driving, and Anthony’s party. Whilst they did not break the powerful spell of the novel, there was something that felt inauthentic. Drawn from American TV shows rather than actual life. But, that may be because I do teach so depictions of school jar easily for me.

I also, as a male, felt like I wanted to defend my gender against the allegations of texic masculinity… but I find that I can’t. And for two reasons. Listening to students’ conversations even in a provincial town where I work, listening to my friends and my family, remembering my own conduct at times… this aspect of the novel did feel – sadly – all too convincing and authentic. Secondly, the novel does not demonise men. There are good men in the rugby club group chat who did call out their friends. Spence like Scrooge does learn and change – and start to heal his own grief. The novel does not demonise men, it just challenges us to be better. Those comments made need to be called out and challenged. Again, like Dickens, there is a strong social message here, and it is an important, urgent and timely one.

This is the first book I have read from the Carnegie shortlist, but I have to say that it is of the same calibre as some previous winners and it is a novel that will stay with me for some time and, yes, change attitudes. Really very powerful, without sacrificing the reading experience to deliver its message. An incredible debut!

I’m Lou, a writer of young adult contemporary fiction with speculative twists.

I grew up in the Midlands and now live in the sunny south east of England with my partner and our two small dogs. When not hunched over my keyboard I can be found hunched over craft projects or curled up somewhere cosy with friends. My posture is fantastic.

My debut young adult novel, The Eternal Return of Clara Hart, was published by Little Island in August 2022.

It has been nominated for the 2023 Yoto Carnegie Awards and shortlisted for the Great Reads Award 2022.

I’m represented by Becky Bagnell at Lindsay Literary Agency


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Plot / Pace:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Page Count:

288 pages


Little Island Books


4th August 2022


Amazon, Goodreads



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