Well, David Almond is obviously highly regarded - huge reviews in the Guardian, prizes galore, so I was quite keen to read Skellig which is super-famous – but this was the one in the library so I got this out instead.
It’s a short read and very well written in a highly distinctive voice, with crisp clear precise sentences. The use of language is both beautiful and readable. Other stuff – not so much. I had a few problems, mainly with the plot, theme and characters. Hm.
The plot was moderately directionless: obviously this is deliberate. This reads like a long slightly magical summer with more or less naughty boys running wild, not going anywhere in particular. Two of them find a baby (a sweet-smelling “child of God” – what could she symbolize?), one is a nutter who chops up snakes in a pit with a spade amongst other revolting activities, and is generally cruel and disgusting (perchance symbolizing the opposite?). But there is no strong narrative drive. Almond is a very skillful writer: if he wanted strong narrative drive, I’m sure he could put it in there. But the novel is meant to be kind of elegiac: it ruminates on deep themes, ponders evil vs good and the pain of leaving childhood behind, evokes hot summers on the cusp of adulthood, and for these purposes absolute realism and a purposeful plot are maybe not crucial. If you’re happy with the elegy, the symbolism, the philosophy and the ambience.
War underpins the evil of man theme, being referred to constantly with planes flying overhead etc (Bush and Blair vs Iraq), along with the horrors of which man is capable. Are we all monsters under the skin? Is the veneer of civilisation a fragile thing with violence ever ready to explode through? Are we born evil, original sin being the true state of man? And so on. Psycho friend Gordon Nattrass embodies the arguments in favour of: we all love death and pain and torture, we just pretend we don’t. Plus we have an unlikely duo of foster kids, a Liberian ex-child soldier and a burns and foster care system self-mutilator. And herein lie the problems I have with really investing in this story, despite the quality of the writing which is in many ways a delight.
The theme is laid on in spades, for my taste. But above and beyond that – I am a big fan of plausibility.
Nattrass becomes an exhibited artist. His age is left vague, but at some point we are told Liam’s age is fourteen. This also was slightly problematic: in many ways he felt very immature, galloping around the countryside in sticks and mud more like a ten-year-old – but his friend and peer Max, looking to the future of careers and girlfriends, seemed more like a sixteen or seventeen year old. At least. And Liam’s age wavered, which I suppose could be construed as realistic: fourteen year olds can be grown up one minute, infantile the next. But… On the whole he felt like an immature, rather privileged, bratty older teenager.
So Nattrass becomes an exhibited artist – at fourteen? Or is he meant to be older? (He ‘s a friend, so the original assumption is that they’re close in age). It just doesn’t work for me: it’s not real world. Real world is: there are thousands of talented artists out there struggling for recognition – and yet some psycho kid gets support from a gallery to show his grim ideas, even if he has the verbal skills to make the pitch…
So, plausibility dead in the water on that one.
And then the two foster kids lack credibility, in particular Crystal. Oliver, the child soldier, is probably equally unreal but I have no experience with child soldiers so I could just about – barely – buy into his reality.
But I have worked with abused kids, foster kids, self-harmers… and the waif-like, dreamy, highly articulate, super-poetic and profoundly philosophical Crystal, is a hard creation to swallow. Neglected/abused/abandoned kids are more usually angry, inarticulate (neglect does that) and even more angry. Self-harm is anger turned inwards and mixed up into an unhealthy cocktail with self-loathing (because at a deep down level kids blame themselves – mum left me, so I must be bad and unlovable). Rage is a defining characteristic. Sweet dreamy poetics not so much.
To me, this reads like a skilled writer who deliberately chooses a drifting plotline and lack of narrative drive in favour of developing his themes through atmosphere and symbolism. I’m sure worthy critics, librarians and English teachers will love this story as a juicy subject for discussion, and because they think it’s the sort of meaningful thing teens should be reading. As for the teens themselves? I think I would have found it boring, and run back to Harry Potter or the Hunger Games.