I enjoyed a remarkable school visit to Sudbury, MA, last Friday. It was for a “One School, One Book” program, where approximately 1,000 students, grades 6-8, all read my book, Bystander, over the summer. I gave three presentations in a large, full auditorium and tried not to disappoint, though I think I’m still figuring out how best to talk about that topic without coming off as didactic.
But that’s not why I’ve gathered you here today.
I want to praise this book:
If I had a few extra lives, I’d start a blog that focused on “re-reviews.” That is, thoughtful discussions on books that had been around for longer than two minutes. So much about our culture is dedicated to the Cult of the New, our consumerist chase of the latest and greatest, that I think we sometimes lose sight of what truly deserves our attention.
So for the drive out and back to Sudbury, almost three hours each way, I took the audiobook of Skellig out of my local library. And really, I have no idea how I found this book, how it came to my hands. When I realized the reading was recorded by the author himself, and not by a professional actor, my first reaction was, “Uh-oh.” But Almond did a tremendous job. There is a gentleness and vulnerability to his voice that perfectly suits the book’s narrator, Michael; I can’t imagine it read by anyone else.
I loved this book as much as I’ve enjoyed any children’s book, period. I’m not sure how Skellig would be categorized these days, now that everything seems to get lumped into “speculative fiction,” but I think of it as “magic realism.” But done with precision and always with an eye toward larger truths.
In the story, a boy, Michael, meets a strange man-creature who appears to be living in an abandoned garage. “What are you?” Michael keeps asking.
I thought he was dead. He was sitting with his legs stretched out, and his head tipped back against the wall. He was covered in dust and webs like everything else and his face was thin and pale. Dead bluebottles were scattered on his hair and shoulders. I shone the torch on his white face and his black suit.
As the story unfolds, we learn the deeper story about Michael’s baby sister, who is struggling to survive in the hospital somewhere between life and death, attached to tubes and wires.
This book reminded me of some essential lessons in writing. Most essentially, the magical element — Skellig himself — is present to serve and deepen the psychological/emotional truth of the story. It’s not there as a cheap fill-in for story itself, or as some handy excuse for plot.
I think in these days we’re seeing more and more so-called magical elements in books, but they don’t seem magical at all — more like marketing, in fact. A tacked-on fad.
Reading Skellig helped me reach this conclusion: The magic has to serve the realism, not as some easy substitute for genuine feeling.
Almond clearly wrote this story from a deep emotional place, there is heart and soul on every page — a book that feels absolutely urgent and necessary — and as we journey into the mystery of Skellig, the character, we sink deeper into Michael’s own fears and turmoil as a sweet, confused boy “in distress” who is trying to make sense of it all.
In a world of strangeness and horror and the sweet stirrings of new love.
Rarely do I ever read a book and think, “I wish I wrote that.” Or more accurately, “I wish I could one day write a book as good and deep and honest as that.” But that’s how I felt about Skellig, a masterpiece.
That said: I have no idea what my kids will make of it. I imagine that some readers might find the book too slow, too sophisticated, with not enough action. But for my taste, and for why I read books in the first place, Skellig blew me away, knocked my head off my shoulders.
Hey James, good review.
One of our most beloved children’s writers here in New Zealand, Dorothy Butler, once said, ‘A good book like a wandering son or daughter will one day return home’.
As to your last paragraph, my favourite teacher Kate de Goldi said, ‘Plot is over-rated. Story must have tension. It doesn’t merely reside in action, it’s in character revelation, the acrobatics of language play. Plot arises out of well-drawn character. Action-based plot is at the expense of character.’
I adhere to Kate’s theories. So the first book in my trilogy (doing the rounds of publishers at present trying to find a home), is mainly about character revelation. It’s not until the second and third book that the action steps up in pace. So I wonder how long it will take me to find that special publisher in this day and age, who can appreciate the slow burn of ‘character revelation’???
Thanks for inviting me to take a read of your latest post! Enjoyed it… YC
Yvette, I am in agreement with your school of thought. However, the more I read, and the more I see on the marketplace, the more I think I need to focus on plot for wider appeal. Thing is, I’m not sure I’m built that way. I’ve never been a “what’s next?!” kind of reader.
It’s funny, I really love Richard Ford, and I know many people who don’t enjoy his books. They’ll complain, “Nothing ever happens.”
And it’s true — but I love him just the same, because I love all the small things, the closely observed moments, the amazing sentences, that do happen.
That’s why my next book opens with a car crash.
Thanks for stopping by.