David Almond,
Raven Summer
(Delacorte, 2008)

When a children's book kicks off with the line, "It starts and ends with the knife," you know you're not in for a typical reading experience. But then, David Almond is not a typical children's author. He's the writer of the Carnegie-winning Skellig and haunting, memorable novels like Kit's Wilderness, Clay and Heaven Eyes, to name a few. His novels are often complex, mature, philosophical fare, sometimes grim in content -- in fact, at least some of Almond's books are more suitable for young adults than for the 9-12 set, but that's another commentary for another time. Let's confine ourselves instead to Raven Summer.

The novel is story of Liam, who lives in the wild English countryside of Northumberland. He's right on the cusp of young adulthood and is trying (however unconsciously) to hang on to the last vestiges of childhood. He spends his time with his friend Max, while his evenings are spent with his parents, both of whom are artists -- his father a writer, his mother a painter and photographer. Then one day Liam and Max encounter in their play a mysterious lone hiker and a raven. The hiker remains a mystery, but the raven leads them to an abandoned baby with a misspelled note affixed to her clothing, and a jar full of pound notes and coins next to her.

The discovery makes them nine-day wonders in town, and when the time comes for the foundling to go to a temporary foster home, Liam and his mother accompany her there. It's here that he encounters Crystal (a young goth-styled girl who cuts herself) and Oliver, a Liberian refugee with an aura of mystery. In the middle of all this stands Liam's former friend and sometime-nemesis Nattras. Nattras seems bent on tormenting Liam, then later (in a not quite believable subplot) Liam's mother, and then finally Crystal and Oliver, in a denouement that is truly dark and unnerving. And throughout Almond treats us to an innocence-ends tale that is both atypical and superior, and very smartly told.

One of the things Almond does extremely well in this book is to juxtapose art and life, and how they reflect one another, and how alienated both can become from what is real -- and ultimately, how subjective the very idea of "reality" is. Liam's mother photographs his bruises in close-up and the resulting "art" becomes a success; Nattras's video re-enactments of atrocities become an even bigger success -- much to her consternation (and perhaps jealousy). This is counterpointed with the village idyll of the main story, and the fighter jets that periodically roar overhead off to some unnamed battle in the north (often accompanied by shouts of "Bomb them back to the Stone Age!"), and even with Liam's father's attempt to imagine the story of the abandoned baby into a new novel.

The question Almond is asking (some might say begging) here is: what's better, to take the horrible and make it beautiful, or to take the horrible and present it for what it is? Is truth beauty? Is beauty a deeper truth? It's a conundrum with no easy answers, and Almond wisely chooses to let readers decide for themselves what the best answer is ... or whether there may be more than one answer.

If the book has any flaws it's that the characters seem less dimensional than they should. That might be a side effect of the first-person narration, which focuses on Liam and his feelings -- but even then his motives are frequently left unspoken. Perhaps that's as it should be; Liam is on the verge of adolescence, and at that age our own motives, let alone others', seem dim and mysterious to us. But by the same token what the characters say and do sometimes seems too expedient, too much in the service of the story (especially Nattras's subversive and not entirely credible success as an artist). Given that this is a children's novel perhaps this isn't too much of a detriment -- especially when it helps to set up the climax of the book, which turns a lot of preconceived notions on their heads. But a little less of this, deployed more subtly, would have helped make the novel better in my opinion.

But that's a quibble in the face of what is truly an excellent book. If you have an older child and you think he or she can handle a more mature story, then this is a damned good one.

[ visit the author's website ]

book review by
Jay Whelan

13 November 2010

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