Thursday, 23 December 2010

Review of The Liberators in The Oriel Record

And so as Christmas approaches, I attack the pile of magazines that has piled up in my post box over the last couple of months, and find an issue of The Oriel Record. It contains a marvellous review of The Liberators, by my old tutor, James Methven. He takes particular delight in the scenes at The National Gallery (hence the picture). Here it is in full, below. Incidentally, Methven has himself just published a collection of versions of Catullus, called Precious Asses, published by Seren Books. Click HERE for their website, where you can buy a copy.

The Liberators, Philip Womack
By James Methven, Oriel Record, 2010

Philip Womack’s second novel pitches us into a world of global financial crisis, fear of deadly attacks on the Underground, and the false fashionable world of arts junkets in the capital. This sounds the very model of a modish political and economic setting to an adult thriller, yet this is a novel for young teen readers from the author whose debut, The Other Book, (Bloomsbury, 2008) was reviewed in these pages two years ago. Where The Other Book player upon themes and ideas from epic and Arthurian legend, The Liberators draws its energies from the world of Greek mythology.

The story opens with a savage narrative bang: mass hysteria afflicts the passengers of an underground train and when the laughter and panic subsides a man is discovered beheaded and dismembered. Moments before, he has pressed a mysterious small black object in to the hand of a young boy with the strange injunction: Koptay thurson. The police are baffled and the media speculate as to the nature of this possible terrorist attack. The narrative voice shifts and we run for the rest of the novel with Ivo Moncrieff, a young boy let loose from school for his Chrismtas holidays, who is tasked with a quest that will deny him his freedom for a while, but, should he fail, all our freedoms will be destroyed. Freedom is the central motif of the book; the problem posed being what freedoms we truly have. The monstrous forces against which Ivo must fight represent the absolute anarchic freedoms of the god Dionysus; here taking split human form as the devilishly seductive Luther-Ross brothers who seek to unman the nation to a violent squabbling mess of inhuman savages. These figures from beyond mortal time are a spooky incarnation from Greek mythology, shape-shifting between a grotesque true self and a suave falsity. Their monstrous appetites and their desire to feed others the freedoms they normally avoid form the core of the descriptive power of the novel (there is a horribly queasy scene in which the young hero is force-fed alcohol and tempted by the antagonists to give licence to his inner demons.)

As with Womack’s previous book, there is a twisting plot, some rather gruesome violence (a dead cat features nastily at one point), and some hard moral lessons for the protagonists. The writing is of a high quality, with a poetic turn of phrase; the sentences have pace but also hold our interest such as to make us read without missing detail. Ivo befriends two other youngsters, Felix and Miranda (beset with the horrors of a private tutor in the Vacation), who, along with an organization called FIN (Freedom is Nothing), devoted to the ousting of the Liberators, must undergo all manner of slick and sudden shocks and trials before the grand show-down which comes in the National Gallery in the presence of HRH the Prince of Wales ‘and his Duchess’.

The strangeness of the London depicted – it’s real, but its inhabitants at times seem not to notice the horrors being perpetrated around them – and the delightfully batty shift from apparent elderliness to lithe marshall arts prowess on the part of the members of FIN calls to mind the old TV Avengers from the 60s, and the stylishness of the antagonists suggests that any film version would need a very groovy design indeed. And if so, who will play the Prince of Wales ‘sheltering behind an upturned table’, as anarchic humans and the devilish Acolytes of the Liberators battle it out? For early teen readers this is a highly entertaining and heady mix of contemporary fun and quite sophisticated satire, laced with satisfyingly horrid danger for the young heroes.

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