Posts Tagged ‘fable’

What’s the bravest thing you ever did?
He spat into the road a bloody phlegm. Getting up this morning, he said.

That is how bleak the world of this book is. Tragically, lyrically and devastatingly bleak, but bleak nonetheless. Nothing grows. Nothing lives. The world contains nothing of beauty or of value and very little of utilitarian use. Whilst the man and boy we follow are “good guys”, the rest of the world appears to consist of “bad guys” by which McCarthy means paedophiles, rapists, murderers and cannibals.

The story, such as it is, is ridiculously simple: a man and his son are walking south in search of something. This is narrative stripped bare, stripped to its literal bones. It has the sparseness of a fable or an allegory or a parable and puts me in mind of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress more than anything else.

The setting, however, is science fiction: a post-apocalyptic vision of hopelessness: animal and vegetable life appears to be devastated. The word “dead” occurs so frequently it would be easy to mock. The man and his son are

Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel. The nights dead still and deader black. So cold….

The road crossed a dried slough where pipes of ice stood out of the frozen mud like formations in a cave. The remains of an old fire by the side of the road. Beyond that a long concrete causeway. A dead swamp. Dead trees standing out of the gray water trailing gray and relic hagmoss.

Again, for me, echoes abound, particularly of Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The man and boy are very literally walking through the shadow of the the valley of death. I’m not so naive and McCarthy’s not so pedestrian that you can see direct parallels but this novel in which the man and boy “carry the fire” is embedded in these narratives and lyrics of Christian pilgrimage and Christian faith. And it is through that fire that such a bleak novel lives on with such optimism and hope. Throughout the novel, the man’s faith is repeatedly rewarded by hidden caches of food or the remnants of an orchard.

The other story which echoes through my reading of The Road is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. The road itself as a symbol; the pair of travellers; the absurdity, beauty and pathos in their interactions.

But the novel goes beyond that Christianity and beyond the evocation of other texts. There is a deeply human relationship between the man and boy, full of the love and hope, the frustration and fear which is so recognisable. And almost unbearably painful: the man’s horror over the gauntness of his son, his sense of inadequacy trying to comfort him, the bleak practicality of his teaching his son how to shoot himself. There is never a shred of doubt that this father would die before allowing harm to come to his son; and would suffer worse than death to allow his son to escape suffering.

And his final words to his son. Oh god. As a dad, that final conversation was worth reading the whole book for. And all delivered in terse almost monosyllabic dialogue.
It can sometimes be hard to think of strong and positive father figures in literature (Atticus Finch, Jean Valjean excepted and I’m sure many others who haven’t come to mind yet…) so I notice them when I come across them. And strong father-son relationships seem even rarer.

Anyway, I digress…

The writing style of the novel is different to the traditional: the sentences are often fragmented and, when not, they are short and simple, only linking clauses together with coordinating conjunctions, the “and” echoing through the prose like the tired footfalls of the protagonists. There is extremely scant use of adverbs. The man and boy are never named. Apostrophes and dialogue markers are omitted sometimes.

I’m more sanguine about that that most of the commentators on Goodreads. The sentence structures work beautifully well and, as I’ve said, contribute to the lyricism in their sparseness. And, even if I mourn the absent apostrophes just a little, this is one of the most hauntingly beautiful books around. A writer who can come up with this line

“If he is not the word of God God never spoke”

should not be criticised because some people would prefer a comma there.

Haunting. Beautiful. Muscular.



There are some books that revel in plot, action and events.

Other books – perhaps quieter books – are content to develop narrative: characters and settings, relationships and language.

This book by Ali Shaw is very clearly and very effectively one of the latter: little really happens, but so much is created.


Lets take the setting initially. The book is set on the fictional island of St. Hauda’s Land, somehow far Scottish or Norweigan in flavour. It is the perfect setting for this novel of transformation as the sea and the land are constantly changing and metamorphosing: the very fabric of the island is being eaten away by the sea. Within the island are towns, forests and bogs all of which contribute their distinctive character to the novel.

Next, the characters: the delightful Ida Macleod and the less appealing Midas Crook. Midas… named for the King whose touch transformed everything to gold; and Ida who is transforming from the feet up into glass. Yes, glass.

Don’t expect Shaw to give you any explanation. Explanations are not offered by Shaw. No more for this transformation than for the creature whose glance can turn everything it sees white or the moth-winged cattle that also inhabit this island. Ida is turning into glass. Those characters who seek explanations and cures are the least likeable and the closest Shaw gets to villainy.

And that tranformation is physically traumatic, genuinely terrifying but visually stunning.

“Her toes were pure glass. Smooth, clear, shining glass. Glinting crescents of light edged each toenail and each crease betweent he joints of each digit. Seen through her toes, the silver spots on the bedsheet diffused into metallic vapours. The ball of her foot was glass too, but murkier, losing its transparency in a gradient until, near her ankle, it reached skin: matt and flesh-toned like any other. And yet… Those few inches of transition astonished him even more than her solid glass toes. Bones materialised faintly inside the ball of her foot, then became lily-white and precise nearer her unaltered ankle, shrouded along the way by translucent red ligaments in denser layers. In the curve of her instep, wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles. And there were places where the transformation was incomplete. Here was a pinprick mole, there, a fine blonde hair.”

It is no surprise that the writing is so visual: the majority of the book is narrated from the point of view of Midas who is cripplingly shy and / or capable of being located somewhere on the autistic spectrum disorder. He is a photographer. The simple image of his camera (disappointingly digital) as the barrier and (literally) lense through which he sees the world but also distances himself from the world is a beautiful one – speaking as someone who has experience of ASD. Again, as a photographer, he is allied with the static and the captured moment in a story about fluidity and transformation; Ida is transforming into a solid just as his photographs capture movement and still it. Don’t expect value judgements in the book – Smith does not lecture you to embrace change or counsel you to celebrate the static – but the play between the still and the mobile, between static and transformation is beautiful and magical.

The ending of the novel approached with a terrible sense of inevitability and was beautiful, heart wrenching and even managed to wring a tear from this cynical teacher.

A fantastic, fantastical fairy tale of a book!

I am in two minds over this book. And I think that reflects the fact that the book itself is trying to be two things at once.

On the one hand this is a gritty realistic depiction of the most poor in a down trodden society. It is based on the trash piles that Mulligan witnessed in Manila, being combed over by children scavenging anything that could be useful, traded or sold. It is a genuine contemporary problem and the descriptions of the trash piles, of the slum town of Behala are effective and chilling for a young adult book. There is a strength in Mulligan’s writing when describing these through the eyes of Raphael, Gardo and Rat, his three protagonists and principal narrators.

Having stumbled onto a bag in their scavenging, Raphael discovers a moderate fortune, photographs of a dead man and his daughter and a key. It soon transpires that the police are also after the contents of this bag and offer 10,000 pesos for its recovery and another 1,000 pesos to every family. It is here that the narrative falters for me: the brutality with which the police persecute Raphael was convincing and chilling; but the speed with he rejects the offer of the money stretched my suspension of disbelief too far.

As a fable (and one that I felt was explicitly Christian) I understand that Raphael had to reject the temptation of the money; but set in an otherwise realistic convincing environment it jarred.

As did the literacy of the boys. Again I understand it is written in retrospect and possibly with the benefit of a later education and I can accept their narrative voices. What struck me, though, was the picture of them sitting around reading newspapers and the Internet. Again a small, jarring detail.

In fact I felt the life of these boys was just slightly romanticised. They meet other street boys in the course of the novel; they sneak their way into the train station boys’ territory, night sweepers share a cigarette with Raphael, they are hidden in a gang of youths… They almost seem like the Baker Street Irregulars or Robin Hood’s Merry Men. Again, in itself, this is no bad thing; in a contemporary gritty setting, it didn’t quite work for me.

As a teacher, however, I see much to recommend this book: the characters are vivid and well created and their voices are convincing. I particularly liked the voices of the more minor characters who took over the narration from time to time. I think a lot of boys will read this very much as an adventure story and it does appeal to the powerful idea of the underdog rising up to combat and succeed in a small but significant way against a corrupt political system.



A fabulous book! At its most literal level!

Reading the blurb of this, the fate of Romany children in Eastern Europe during World War II was an appealing on. Then it mentioned that they come across animals in a zoo which talk to them.

Talking animals have never appealed to me: Mrs Frisbee, Beatrix Potter, Disney… Anthropomorphised, twee, patronising … Oddly I do like magic realism but the idea of talking animals curdles the blood.

This, however, works. And works brilliantly.

Andrej and Tomas are fleeing Nazi persecution having witnessed their family and friends gathered and led into the forest bearing shovels. It is implicit that they are being executed. Told to flee by their mother, they do so and end up in a ruined razed village. There, Night (who almost acts in the same way as Death in The Book Thief) spots them as they slip into the only building standing: the zoo. After being knocked out by a bomb raid, Andrej and Tomas hear the animals talking. It is not clear whether the remainder of the novel is Andrej’s delusion or genuine. In fact the boundaries between narrative truth, history, fiction, dream, story and fantasy are not clear throughout the book.

The animals tell their stories to the children and whether we truly believe them – for example, the lioness appeared to have ended up in the zoo after she mauled the bride of the hunter who had stolen her – in my opinion, becomes irrelevant. Because the stories have power. A truth that exists beyond pedantic accuracy.

I can see many people reacting to this novel negatively and seeing only superficial meanings: zoos are bad; wars are horrible. The heart of the book, however, is deeper than that: it is in the beautiful lyricism of the prose (some of the sentences are truly stunning!) and in the power and value of story telling.

This book has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal 2012. As has Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls in which the eponymous Monster tells Conor, the main character, three stories in exchange for a story back from Conor. Hartnett’s tale shows the power of story to overcome the horrors of war; Ness’ shows the power of story to overcome the horrors of a parent’s illness. Both books are stunning!