Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon: A worthy contender for the Costa Awards

Sally Gardner: A worthy contender
So Hilary Mantel won the Costa Prize; for which I do not begrudge her - Bring up the Bodies is a fine novel. But there was one book on the list that I thought deserved a look in.

A tender friendship between two boys; a dyslexic hero; self-sacrifice; propaganda. These are the ingredients of Sally Gardner’s moving young adult novel, Maggot Moon.

Young adult fiction is a tricky area: many see it as a form of escapism, a clich├ęd place inhabited by sexy vampires who rip their tops off every other minute, and pale heroines whose only worry is whom they should marry (hello to you, Stephanie Meyer). A way, in other words, for teens to avoid serious adult fiction.

Maggot Moon is not at all like that. It engages with complex, fascinating ideas in an original manner, and the writing is full of beautiful images. The voice of its narrator, Standish Treadwell, is absorbing and striking. He is a teenage dyslexic whose family lives in Zone 7, in a city that is never named (but feels like London). The year is sometime in the 1950s, and a totalitarian Motherland is in control of everything. We are in an alternative dystopian England. The term “dystopia” is bandied around a lot in the young adult world, but here it is essential to the book: the country itself doesn’t function, suppressing and eliminating everything that goes against its ideology. Here someone like Standish – a “dyslexic” – is seen to be odd, even a threat.

Which, as it turns out, he is, to the Motherland at least – for this apparent outsider will uncover a conspiracy that is attempting to deceive the entire world. Standish, the apparent freak, will, in an act of simple but glorious rebellion, set in train events that will bring the country back into a functioning regime once more. The story has its roots in the ritual of folklore. It isn’t too much of a stretch to think of the narrative as a form of the kind of renewal found in the King Arthur cycles – someone must die to make the country live.

The book’s appeal is therefore manifold. Teenagers will find Standish’s askew relationship with the world attractive; adults will find it just as gripping, since it takes its nourishment from such deep wells of storytelling. It also deals with a male friendship that blossoms into love in a touching, believable manner, which is a brave and timely thing to do.

The final message of the book, though, is the one that resounds the most. The world that we inhabit seems to be operated by leviathans that exist out of our reach: whether they are uber-rich individuals, tax-avoiding corporations, or hapless governments, the ordinary person seems to have very little real power (although we are given the illusion of it through social media and consumerism.) Maggot Moon shows that it is possible to have a powerful impact as a single person.

It may not quite be a revolutionary call to arms – but it is a call to think, to question; and to the lonely soul, making its way on this hostile planet, it gives the best thing of all: hope.

1 comment:

  1. Agree with every word, Philip. It's a marvellous book, and one everybody should read. I too hoped it would win the Costa.