Prickly, resentful, and miserable, Michael has had it with the stupid optimism being spewed at him by the adults in his life in Skellig
, British author David Almond's first novel for children.
When a real estate agent cheerily advises the grumbling Michael to envision his new home as it will be after extensive renovations, Michael persists in picturing it as it was, with the former elderly owner lying dead and rotting on the dusty kitchen floor. And then there's "Dr. Death", the paediatrician who claims that Michael's newborn sister's health will improve...eventually. Sure, and that's why Michael watches his sister growing weaker every day, and his parents growing sick with worry. Is Michael's insistence on seeing things so bleakly realistic or too narrow?
Then Michael sees him. Behind a tea chest in the garage is a man wearing a black suit, his pale face and matted hair covered with dead bluebottles, dust, and cobwebs. Who is he? A tramp? Another local eccentric? When Michael questions him, the man replies, "Mr. Nobody. Mr. Bones and Mr. Had Enough." Though frightened, Michael is drawn to the man, whose name, it turns out, is Skellig; and he is very curious about the wings that seem to be forming under Skellig's bony shoulder blades. "I'd soon begin to see the truth about him," says Michael, "that there'd never been another creature like him in the world."
Indeed. Extremely popular with both children and adult readers, Skellig sold out in four days in England. Almond has just been awarded the prestigious Carnegie Medal, and Skellig was named the Whitbread's Children's Book of the Year.
Almond has said that his writing has been strongly influenced by Raymond Carver and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and those influences are evident in his lean, supple prose, the reticence of his storytelling, and its emphasis on naturalistic supernaturalism.
Almond's dark fantasy/adventure is in the tradition of the English spiritual supernaturalism of C.S. Lewis, and of contemporary writers like Philip Pullman. Its erudition and spiritual inquiries are woven into the breathlessly fast-paced, suspenseful plot line. The characters grapple, believably and naturally, with the thin red line separating the real and spirit worlds, sight and vision, doubt and faith.
In Michael, Almond has created an adolescent boy who is typical yet unique. Michael's clipped, terse, declarative, first-person narration voices what he himself cannot-the strain of reining in his fears, feelings, and imagination. But his close relationships with Skellig and Mina, the perceptive, outspoken girl-next-door, help him to see beyond surfaces and widen his heart and imagination.
Skellig is a wonderful creation, half Beckettian tramp, half Blakean angel. When Michael first meets Skellig, he is hovering between life and death, between giving up and going on. Michael comically and frantically searches for the meaning of his odd, elusive utterances, such as his muttering of the numbers 27 and 53, which turn out to be Skellig's favourite items on the local Chinese takeout menu.
Nourishment, care, and connection with Michael and Mina strengthen Skellig's body and spirit until he grows wings. Now Blakean angel, he inspires them to regard life with vision, not just sight. In one of the loveliest scenes in the novel, Skellig, Mina, and Michael join hands and circle, for Michael and Mina feel they too have sprouted wings.
"Sometimes we just have to accept that there are things we cannot know," Mina wisely tells Michael. Many questions are left unanswered in Almond's visionary novel. After all, what's the need for faith and vision if everything in life can be conveniently anchored by a glut of explanations like the last scene in an Agatha Christie mystery?
Sherie Posesorski is a Toronto writer and editor.