In One Person, John Irving

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John Irving has many excellent qualities as a writer. He manages to combine pathos with incredibly funny, almost absurdist, humour (The Hotel New Hampshire). He can make unlikely, borderline unlikeable characters break your heart (A Prayer for Own Meany). He tackles the crippling effects of grief with compassion, while still making it compulsively readable (Widow for One Year). He is not afraid to deal with difficult topics in a humane and tolerant fashion (The Cider House Rules). And of course, the man is an inspired writer of plot, making tiny character details seem like an entirely natural, and inevitable, trigger for the working of his narrative (Last Night in Twisted River).

It is not that these elements are not present in In One Person, his most recent novel dealing with the life and loves of William Abbot, a bi-sexual man learning to be himself in Sixties and Seventies America, it is just that they are drowned out by a fussy and overworked style, and the whole work is desperately in need of a good edit.

When one reads an Irving, you do expect a certain amount of going over standard material: the New England setting, the wrestling, the bears (here, of course, a reference to burly homosexuals), the fascination with sex, the novelist protagonist. And this is not a bad thing – in my teenage years I devoured Dick Francis’ horse racing novels for the very reason that it always had the same basically-decent-chap as the protagonist, and usually the same setting either directly or tangentially related to horse racing. But so much depends on the handling of the material, if you’ve read it all before, and in this particular Irving, the handling leaves much to be desired.

The title is derived from a line in Shakespeare’s Richard II: “Thus play I in one person many people, / And none contented“, and the story is framed as Abbot’s memories of his youth and later life, as he first becomes aware of his bi-sexuality and learns to live his life authentically, despite the narrow and conformist expectations of society. The book details his early obsession with Miss Frost (the isolated town librarian), his hunger for a father figure as a stable anchor to balance out his mother’s neuroticism, his search for information about his biological father, all against the (none too subtle) backdrop of small town am-dram societies. It intends to be an honest exploration of the heartache and complexity of anyone’s coming of age, made more so by the hesitant blooming of what society deems a socially incongruous approach to sexuality. But in the end it is just too heavy-handed in the way it portrays William’s sexual ambivalence, from the overt foreshadowing represented by his wise old Grandpa Harry (preternaturally suited to playing female characters) to William’s own casting as Ariel, a character who is also sexually indeterminate, as we are told, again and again.

Elsewhere reviewers have described the ceaselessly repetitive style as deeply affecting; personally, I don’t need quite as much hammering over the head to get the subtext, or to be reminded of a person’s words three pages after they first uttered it. And don’t get me started on the constant quotations. Reams of Shakespeare aside, I felt like I was reading a book by Randall Napier, the protagonist of David Foster Wallace’s short story Oblivion, where DFW successfully uses Napier’s constant air quotations to mark the short story’s investigation of reality, and to characterise Napier as a bit of an idiot. About halfway through In One Person I was desperate for Abbot to just have his own train of thought, without constantly quoting his social circle. In a kind of cringing self-reference too far, Irving has Miss Frost intone early on that if one starts repeating everything other people say, one finds oneself in real trouble. No points for guessing which character then endlessly repeats this statement.

It is a book I really wanted to like, both because of my fondness for Irving’s story-telling skills, and because I respected his intention to advocate for tolerance and acceptance of sexuality in all its shapes. In One Person tries too hard to combine storytelling with moral outrage, and fails to do either well.

Picture credit: Oleg Denysenko

Is that a Fish in your Ear? David Bellos

Eerily well-timed, I discovered David Bellos’ book on translation while reading the English version of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. The latter proved hard work; the former, rather more rewarding. I am willing to accept that my failure to warm towards Mann no doubt says more about me than it says about either Mann or his translator, but Bellos perfectly articulates one of the main problems I had with the Mann novel. Buddenbrooks, dealing with the decline of a wealthy Hanseatic family over the course of four generations, depends for much of its portrayal of the family’s status on the distinction between them and members of different classes, using dialect as an instantly recognised marker for class. At least, I assume that’s what the original does. The translation has all sorts of anachronistic markers thrown in, with servants speaking in a sort of a Wessex brogue (unfortunately channelling more Stella Gibbons than Thomas Hardy), and painfully fussy ruminations on the verb choices of other characters (such as an ill-mannered Bavarian suitor). Bellos makes me feel much better about my frustration with Buddenbrooks when he identifies exactly this function of language (to flag social identity) as one of the few things that cannot be translated:

Most people currently think it is just silly to make a Bavarian dairy farmer use Texas cowboy slang, or to have a woman on the St Petersburg tram express herself in Mancunian in order to suggest her geographic and linguistic distance both from the capital and the standard language.

Make of Mann in translation what you will, but don’t you dare quote the old adage of “translation being no substitute for the original”. What else is it, asks Bellos, but a substitute for the original? By its very definition a translation is not the original. It’s a clever point, neatly made, and a good indication of what you can expect from Bellos (the title, with its reference to the ‘babel fish’, last seen in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, will also give you a clue to Bellos’ lightness of tone).

A renowned translator himself, having won the 2005 Man Booker International Prize for his translations of works by Albanian author Ismail Kadare, he is currently a professor at Princeton University, and Bellos writes knowledgeably and entertainingly about his subject, with only occasional lapses into denser academic discourse.

For the most part, the short, punchy chapters are easy to digest, and the scope of his investigation is fascinating. He deals with the enormously complex translation practices required to execute the European Union’s egalitarian approach to language parity, the challenges of simultaneous translation, the ratio in which languages get translated (no surprise that English is far and away the most dominant language in these statistics). A discussion on translation machines goes on to explains the machinations of Google’s “translation” service, which turns out, unsurprisingly, as the mere pilfering of other people’s translations. Google assumes that everything you could possibly read or write online has been said before, and, probably, translated. So it searches through its vast databanks and pulls out word and sentence pairs, and offers this up as quite serviceable translations. It’s not exactly evil, but it’s also not translation, one would have to agree.

He ends the book with a description of the role of language in human society, noting that it is not merely a means of communicating, but rather similar to the grooming primates carry out – a way of connecting and establishing our identities together and apart from other humans. It is an enthralling book, both highly intelligent and passionate. Bellos’ indefatigable enthusiasm for the craft (or rather, the art) of translation is evident, and the reader cannot but share in it. When he closes the final chapter by saying that translation is “another name for the human condition”, I all but clapped in agreement.

Linkage:The inevitable Amazon link, Other reviews

 

The Cleft, Doris Lessing

The CleftPicture credit: Elaine Myburgh, c2014

And then Doris died.  I saw a TV programme on her, and liked her prickly, off-beat response to the Pulitzer fame, and her general air of hyper intelligence mixed with whimsy.  Not long before she died, I had picked up The Cleft during my lunch-time bookstore browse, and now, finding myself strangely melancholic about a rumpled old lady that I didn’t even know, I decided to acquaint myself with her work.  I had read The Golden Notebook a while back, found it fragmented, often impenetrable, at times breathtakingly direct, and mostly intimidating, both in physical size and breadth of is pre-occupations.

The Cleft, by contrast, is a slender volume. Manageable, I thought.  It has an intriguing concept, inevitably met with raised eye-brows: what if women existed first, in a peaceful matriarchal society?  How would the birth of a male child affect that society, and how would the increasing prevalence of males go on to change the power balance?

Dealing with the dawn of humanity, it is of course an origin story*, as much as it is an exploration of gender politics, and by framing it as the musings of an ageing Roman historian recording ancient oral histories, it’s also a story about stories, about what gets remembered, and what gets refashioned in the retelling (chiming nicely with recent revelations about the lack of biological veracity in the Bible).

The story opens with an all-female Eden where woman loll like seals in the surf, floating passively through their days, with the occasional human sacrifice to The Cleft, a sleeping volcano and tribal holy place.  Birth happens spontaneously, and the women are content in their unisex world. The first male babies are seen as aberrations, monsters, and placed on a giant rock where eagles grab them away.  It turns out that these eagles do not kill the male babies, but carry them to safety in a forest.  Soon enough the two “tribes” encounter each other, to their mutual fascination and horror. This part of the story is fascinating, an exploration of the deep distrust we feel for the Other, regardless of whether the gaze is male or female.

The writing is quiet, with a rhythm that recalls firelight retelling of myths and folk tales, and it is almost biblical in its sparseness of character. But while the story, which spans many generations, largely compels one to continue reading, ultimately it fails to satisfy.  Perhaps it is the meagre characterisation, which results in a number of named characters having nearly no distinctive trait.  The Roman narrator fails entirely to come to life, and his interjections just seem unnecessary.  And there seems to be a disappointing inevitability about the nature of gender relationships that reneges on the early promise of the book. It does not take long before the female characters resort to neurotic pleading and the male characters to boyish games and adventures.

I still think the concept is as good an example of Lessing’s superb imagination as anything, but in this instance her execution of it is too slight an affair.

*interesting aside: another name for original stories is pourquoi stories.  I don’t know why I like it so much, but I do.   

Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson

Set in an unnamed city in the Persian Gulf, against the backdrop of an Arabian spring, Alif the Unseen concerns the coming-of-age of Alif, a talented underground hacker, who comes into possession of a mysterious old book which soon enough leads him into worlds unseen and dangers previously unimagined, on both sides of the reality barrier.  It’s a clever tale about the nature of stories, and of that of belief, whether it is our belief about what constitutes reality, or belief about what constitutes foreignness or the Other.

On the surface, it’s a thrilling read, with a strong plot, pleasingly high on incident; a heady mix of the exotic east, hacker culture and mythic elements.  Dialogue is snappy and unforced, even when framed as cyber chat.  There is very little exposition framed as monologues, with the exception of a regrettable set piece or two with the disappointingly voluble villain.  Wilson is exceptionally good at sensual realism, grounding the mythical and the everyday in richly observed and layered colour.  The City, with its translucent quarts walls, which turns a golden salmon colour at sunset, is vividly realised, “at a crossroads between the earthly world and the Empty Quarter, the domain of ghouls and effrit who can take the shapes of beasts”, “overrun by tourists and oil men”, smelling of salt and hot sand in the evenings.  She has a keen eye for contrasts, describing the Old Quarter as a place with “…low-slung harem balconies extended out over the street, their latticed arches reminders of a time when architectural mercies were the extent of an aristocratic woman’s public life.”) and the modern university campus as “…glass boxes designed by some French architect with a perverse sense of humor who, now that women were permitted to attend the university, apparently desired to put them on display.”  She’s good with all the senses, but it was especially smell that I noticed (Alif is described as smelling of “copper wire and rare earth elements and electricity”) how few authors pay attention to the reader’s olfactory experience.

In a book about hacking, there must of course be technology, and Wilson writes wittily about this too.  It’s always interesting to see how modern authors handle the pervasive presence of technology, and Wilson deftly blends our always-on habits into the narrative.  Alif expresses surprise at having computer access in the house of effrit, and is told: “’Brother, said the shadow, we’ve got WiFi.” 

But what makes Wilson’s book so outstanding is her insight into middle-eastern life, both on its own terms, and when interacting with the dominant western culture, and here she contributes an enlightened and open-minded perspective.  There is a scene, just over the halfway mark, where Alif is comforted by a companion when she throws her veil over his head and creates a quiet womb-like space for the two of them: “The darkness soothed Alif’s dazzled eyes.  After a moment his pupils adjusted, lessening the smarting pain in his head.  He could not have guessed the world she created for herself.  Sewn into the underside of her long outer cloak were patches of bright silk: patterned, beaded, spangled with points of light; they hung above him like a tent…”  It’s a beautiful moment in the book, when the young, impulsive, clever-but-immature Alif begins to grow up, as he learns to recognise value beyond the external.  It is of course also a pointed metaphor for how Arabian culture is viewed, or rather, not viewed – we fail too often to look beyond the veils and problematic traditionalism to appreciate a culture that has its own, different richness.

A canny use of a western character (an American university profession, referred to throughout as “the convert”) highlights these tensions further.  She seems to Alif sullen and prickly, and their relationship is characterised by a “brittle distance” they both wish to keep.  Alif’s reaction upon meeting her is telling (and also very funny): “’No. No way.  I don’t want foreigners involved in my business.  Djinn are one thing but I draw the line at Americans.’”  But when she confronts his prejudice, it is an entirely different bias that suddenly comes to the fore: “’It doesn’t matter to you what concessions we make – whether we dress respectfully, learn the language, follow all the insane rules about when to speak and how and to whom.  I even adopted your religion – adopted it, out of my own free will, thinking I was doing something noble and righteous.  But it’s not enough.  You’ll always second-guess every thought and opinion that comes out of my mouth, even when I talk about my own fucking country.’”  Surely the experience of far too many middle-eastern immigrants in western countries?  Alif begins to understand that Anglos, rather than belonging “to some other, more ethereal, way of being” were as mired in the same “anxieties of identity and displacement he suffered” from.  It is by no means an apology for the excesses of fundamentalism, but rather a measured depiction of a culture all too often obfuscated by years of negative press.  Wilson tackles it in a delightfully original way, arguing instead for a common humanity, worth exploring and prizing.

Alif the Unseen is a rollicking adventure story, but it is also a clever, thought-provoking book.  Highly recommended.

Other links: G Willow Wilson’s siteDamian G Walter’s review (which made me read Alif)

The Atrocity Exhibition, J.G. Ballard

I loved Terence Malick’s Tree of Life – its dreamy impressionism, the making of meaning from disparate fragments.  Ballard, in contrast, reads like Malick on acid.  Fragments invariably turn out to be bits of bone or smashed cars or giant body parts, stitched together in a repetitive narrative of distorted nightmares.  But the meaning is hard to extract.  A doctor at a mental hospital has a mental breakdown is what I think happens, but who knows.

The book is written in vignettes, little set pieces that overlap, with dense visual images, constructed from a singularly repetitive language.  How many times can you use the word junction in a sentence?  Answer: many, many times…  And for junction, read geometry, wound, pilot jacket, plane, pudenda.  A distinct preoccupation with cars and crashes and famous deaths (JFK, Monroe, Jackie Kennedy features heavily).  Flat characterisation overall, females especially – dummy set decorations, each one of them.  He has a male character reflect on a female character as an “elegant bitch”, intruding her sexuality, like all women, at the most inopportune times.  The irony of course being that not a single male character appears able to see women as anything other than highly sexualised fetish objects.

His notes on the fragmented chapters are for the most part the better reading.  Meditations on celebrity and media culture, memory and art.  On the whole though, the book is just too much experiment and too little substance.  One can’t but feel like a lab rat impatiently waiting for the bat-shit-crazy scientist to stop the experiment.

American Pastoral, Philip Roth

After a chance encounter, Roth’s long-time protagonist and fictional alter ego, Zuckerman, remembers an athletic star and all-round golden boy from his school days, a boy affectionately known as “the Swede”.  At a school reunion he meets the Swede’s brother again, and makes the shocking discovery that the man he thought was too blandly wholesome to be interesting had suffered an appalling family tragedy.  The Swede and his beauty queen wife’s angry teenage daughter Merry commits a dreadful crime which ultimately destroys her own life and shatters that of her doting parents.  The book then becomes Zuckerman’s imagined sketch of the events leading up to the tragedy and its appalling aftermath, in which the Swede tries to come to terms with Merry’s actions and his own culpability.

It is a compelling story, skilfully told, thought-provoking, touching, especially in a year of yet another school shooting.  Reviews mention the “elegiac” tone, and at its most straightforward reading it is an elegy for the American dream (trite but true).  It also mourns the immigrant’s doomed dream of assimilation, parents’ futile wishes for their children (for good lives free from suffering) as well as the dream we all share of connection with fellow humans.

And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims?…The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway.  It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again.  That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”

American Pastoral is an elegy for man’s insistence on understanding others, what Roth calls “the Swede’s disorder: the inability to draw conclusions about anything but exteriors.”  Early on Zuckerman muses over the human inability to grasp the truth about another human being, and this sad conclusion is echoed throughout the book.  Zuckerman begins to understand that he never really knew who the Swede was, and the Swede, for all his magnetic goodness, is at first puzzled by the mystery of his wayward daughter and then, brutally, destroyed by the unknowability of everyone around him.  This is beautifully portrayed along several dynamics (family, social circle, lovers) culminating in an ill-fated dinner party set-piece, where the slow burn doom of the preceding chapters at last comes to its smashing conclusion.

Y, Marjorie Celona

Marjorie Celona’s debut novel sports a jaunty letter Y as its title. It turns out to be an unfortunate choice, and not only because it inevitably reduces even the most high-minded reviewer to a snarky “why, indeed” put-down. In 2011, TIME Magazine published a list of the top ten books with one letter titles, which included such celebrated authors as Thomas Pychon (V.), John Updike (S.), Booker winner John Berger (G.) and Booker shortlisted Tom McCarthy (C). It is a handy list to keep in mind for literary drinking games, and, the subjectivity of such lists aside, it is an illustrious peer group for any aspiring novelist to find themselves among.

As a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Marjorie Celona is no doubt familiar with the stakes she raised with her novel’s title. It was a bold move, but not one that pays off. The novel is weak enough on its own terms, but in comparison to the experimental work of Python and the high modernism of McCarthy (and even the steady workmanship of Updike), Celona’s novel utterly fails to impress.

An epigraph opens the book with a pretentious riff on the many meanings of the letter Y. Forks in the road and wishbones are invoked, as well as a rather self-consciously clever-clever assertion that prior to the inclusion of the letter Y in the Roman alphabet “no one was happy.” Despite a heavy handed approach to signs and motifs, the “why” of the title is never satisfactory answered, and ends up feeling arbitrary and contrived. The whole thing smacks of a writing school exercise indulged too far – a random letter of the alphabet, a mysterious newspaper article, a dramatic social issue to reel in the book group people and a clumsy structure that hamstrings the plot from the word go.

The novel tells the parallel tales of the protagonist Shannon, a foundling discovered on the steps of a YMCA, and Yula, her hapless mother in the years leading up to her abandonment of Shannon. It is a lopsided structure, not only because the converging stories are out of sync in time (both clock and story time), but also because Yula, flaws and all, is just much more likeable than Shannon. The novel is set on Vancouver Island and Yula’s story takes place in clammy, claustrophobic woods where ancient trees throw giant shadows over everything. Neighbours live in trailers, amongst the rusted skeletons of discarded trucks. On the question of whether bad parenting is down to nature or nurture, Celona politely picks both, and between Yula’s stunted beginning and her doomed choices the melodrama ratchets up, ending with a midnight car chase and (sigh) a choice a mother should never have to make. Shannon, in turn, is almost impossible to warm to, even though Celona tries every possible sympathy-inducing ploy. Her multiple foster homes, care homes, neglect and abuse is laid on thick, presumably to explain Shannon’s later inability to trust or form meaningful connections. A mix of vulnerability – “a little Marilyn Monroe” – and grunge “a bit like Curt Kobain’s kid”, her sense of alienation and displacement intensifies as she becomes a secretive, a self-harming loner given to truancy. The predictable reunion between Shannon and Yula, when it finally arrives to link the two plot strands, feels forced and flat (perhaps π would have been a better title).
As if the overwrought plotting and the humourless delivery are not enough, Celona taste for obtrusive detail is wearying in the extreme. Again reminiscent of a writing student’s notebook, the reader has no choice but to share this ambling gaze that takes in far too much insignificant detail (the contents of cupboards are frequently listed, without contributing to an understanding of either character or motivation). Even the most transient characters are given vivid physical descriptions, from the “small plump face with a rosebud mouth” of a nurse to the heart-shaped tattoo of a diner waitress. It is like being subjected to someone’s holiday photographs – no matter the skill with which each image is portrayed, after a while one sags under the insistent sensory input.

Y is a seriously flawed novel, but not entirely pointless. There is always the chance that at your next dinner party you’ll be put on the spot to name a novel starting with the second last letter of the alphabet. Let’s drink to that.

The Panopticon, Jenny Fagan

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Picture credit: from Jenni Fagan’s blog

Fifteen year-old Anaïs Hendricks hates everything.  We first meet her on the back seat of a police car, her hands cuffed, her skirt blood-stained.  She’s known to the police and the courts as a troublemaker. She is suspected of attacking and seriously injuring a police officer.  The car delivers Anais to The Panopticon, a facility for housing troubled teenagers, which has at its centre a sinister watchtower from which inmates are observed at all times.  Other inmates stare at her from the windows.  “I don’t want tae have tae fight,” Anaïs thinks.  She doubts that she’s going to make it to sixteen.

So far, so tale-of-adolescent-anomie, you might think, but does this book have a wonderful surprise in store for you.  Jennie Fagan’s astonishingly good debut novel is a stylish and affecting combination of headlong energy and bristling truth, filled with blazing outrage at the society that fails to protect the vulnerable but are quick to ostracize the products of this failure.

Fagan is open about her own history in care, and no doubt her personal experience contributes to the novel’s searing realism, but it is not just clear-eyed accuracy that makes this such a magical read.  Written in a lively, Scottish street slang, Fagan masterfully portrays the tight-knit social structure Anaïs and her contemporaries inhabit, while also evoking an eerie sense of alienation from a world ostensibly like ours, but darkly dissimilar in deeply disturbing ways.  She skilfully threads dreams, drug trips and psychotic hallucinations through the grim reality of Anaïs’ existence with matter-of-fact directness.  Although Fagan depicts lives so fucked-up by abandonment and exploitation that social disaffection and drugs become necessary tools for survival, her tone never descends to self-pity or condescension.

Fagan’s bracing voice is a treat, and her command of her material is faultlessly self-assured, but the shimmering heart of the novel is Anaïs herself.  Damaged but undefeated, Anaïs is sassy, violent, unpredictable and altogether fascinating.  Quick to protect those around her, she has no one to protect her against her own self-destructive tendencies and as she cannot remember anything about the incident that left the police officer in a coma, her future looks increasingly bleak… Dreaming of a different life, desperate to discover her own roots, she has a terrifying suspicion that she was made in a laboratory, that her whole life is nothing but an experiment.  Paranoid, fierce, intelligent and resourceful, she will win you over before you have time to even spell out anti-social.

The Panopticon is a thoroughly satisfying read, delivering a fascinating insight into the care system, and introducing us to both a captivating leading lassie, and a deftly original author.

Other links:  Janni Fagan’s site ; Guardian review (Lucy Ellman)

Reflections in a Golden Eye, Carson McCullers

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” ‘A peacock of a sort of ghastly green.  With one immense golden eye.  And in this reflections of something tiny and – ‘

‘Grotesque,’ she finished for him.”

~

McCullers’ second novel, published shortly after the stunning The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is a puzzling work to assess.  Like Hunter, this story has five main characters, and the plot flits expertly between each protagonist’s private desolation in their trapped-in-amber-like existence (and how beautifully the opening lines of the novel evoke this existential ennui: “An army post in peacetime is a dull place.  Things happen, but then they happen over and over again.”)   There’s Captain Penderton, a rigid conformist, coming to terms with his own sexuality, as Leonora, his sporty, promiscuous and vacuously cruel wife has a languid affair (one of many, we sense) with his neighbour, Major Langdon.  Across the road, the Major’s invalid wife broods over her stagnant life, held captive by financial dependency on her wayward husband,  with no-one but a flamboyant houseboy for company with whom she plots dashing getaways, only to be foiled by illness and despair.  Into this simmering discontent steps Private Williams – silent, unknowable, increasingly ominous.  The Captain is viscerally outraged by Williams’ passivity, but also, to his horror, fascinated.  Williams’ presence derails the uneasy peace between the two households and his obsession with Leonora inevitably leads to tragedy.

In her work McCuller’s demonstrated remarkable ability to bring to life the complex interiority of marginalised characters, but here her characterisation, though steady and true as far as it goes, feels underdeveloped.  Without a gloss of pathos, the pared-down writing has something of the parable about it, reminiscent of McCullers’ later The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.  However, what had lyrical heft and touching strangeness in Ballad, here only feels like a short, nasty tale about tiny, grotesque lives, observed from too far a distance.

Picture credit: Waterstones website. 

Maggot Moon, Sally Gardner

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In the delightfully dark tradition of Patrick Ness comes Sally Gardner’s grim but ultimately redeeming tale for (youngish) adults.  In a dreary England oppressed by an unspecified (but recognizably fascistic) regime, Standish Treadwell is not doing well at all.  He lives with his grandfather (his parents mysteriously missing), in a neglected neighbourhood where “unsuitables” are relegated to.  Dyslexic and different, he doesn’t conform to the predictable ideal of boyhood; school is a misery of daily humiliation and bullying, until Hector shows up and becomes Standish’ ally and friend.  The novel is told in vivid, crisp chapters, framed as spoken tales told by the illiterate Standish, as he battles increasing danger and looming despair in the wake of Hector’s disappearance.  It is a touching tale of courage in the face of almost certain doom, with a sweet, misfit hero and his stark, beautiful worldview at the heart of it.

Other links: Sally Gardner’s blog; Guardian review ( Linda Buckley-Archer)

Picture credit: Sally Gardner’s book blog.