Meet Sym, our fourteen-year-old leading lady who's a painfully shy person and would "give anything to fit in" (4.34). She's introverted, though it's hard to know how much of that is inherent to her personality and how much of it has been shaped by life circumstances.
See, Sym feels out of step for a lot of reasons. For one thing, her father recently died and in a really bad way: He lost his mind and was prone to fits of drinking and violence. Ugh. For another, Sym doesn't share the same interests as her peers; she's obsessed with Antarctic exploration and they're into boys. Also, Sym is partially deaf, even with hearing aids, which makes her feel isolated sometimes.
To escape all the difficult things in her life, Sym often retreats into her rich imagination. "I like to do my dreaming when I'm awake" (4.52), Sym says. She also notes, "I always preferred looking inward to looking out" (20.8). Inside herself, Sym finds distraction and happiness:
The mind's a three-ring circus! Music. Lights, Happiness. Wonder. All my life I've gone there when Life got too drab or unkind or lonely or miserable, and it's hardly ever let me down. (22.2)
She even has an imaginary friend, Titus, a historic Antarctic explorer whom she has a bit of a thing for. She's not crazy enough to believe he's real or anything, though, and she keeps Titus a secret from everyone she knows because she doesn't want to be mocked.
Sym spends so much time talking in her head (to Titus) that she sometimes forgets to say things out loud. When she does manage to say something, she's usually not happy with the results. "When I open my mouth, nothing intelligent comes out," she tells us. "Inside my head I'm as articulate as anything, look. But try to get a thought out and it's like pushing raw potatoes through a sieve" (7.1). She often speaks in fragments, and she lives in a near-constant state of panic with regard to any sort of social situation. Small talk isn't her thing; Sym prefers silence.
Despite great hardship and considerable self-doubt, Sym experiences a lot of personal growth stemming from a series of realizations during her travels with Uncle Victor. The first is her own complicity in the bad things that happen to her. Sym often ignores her instincts, which leads her into bad situations: "I stowed all my misgivings out of sight, like dirty magazines on top of a wardrobe," she says. "Every crime like this needs someone like me to look away and say nothing" (14.90). Yikes.
Another important realization that Sym has is that her father loved her. Victor's told her that her dad didn't care for her, and she's believed him because it felt true—after all, her dad was a pretty big jerk. Once Sym understands that Victor killed her father, though, she allows herself to feel her dad's love. Not only does this help her cope with his death, it also enables her to understand that she herself is loveable.
Though Sym spends the bulk of the story worrying that she's some sort of freak because she's not interested in boys, the novel ends on a hopeful note when she flirts with newfound confidence. Sym, it seems, is starting to emerge from her shell. Now that she knows other people can love her, she no longer needs to romance Titus in her head; she's ready to start connecting with the real world around her a bit more.