This week’s book review is, as they say, ‘a rum ‘un’. This week I want to tell you about a book that surprised and intrigued me, which was beautifully written and had some marvellous concepts in it, but which ultimately left me cold. In short, I don’t know what to make of it.
Firstly I should say it’s a book I bought, without question, because of its cover. Not only is is pretty – here, look:
but the back cover blurb made me desperate to read it. I saw a mention of a little boy being raised by a chicken-legged witch, and that was me sold straight away. To compound my sense that this book was exceptionally good, it was the winner of last year’s US National Book Award, and it was also described as “Subtle, tricky, funny [and] beautiful” by no less a luminary than Ursula K. LeGuin.
(It was the Ursula LeGuin thing that got me, really. But come on – LeGuin! That has to be good, right? Well…)
Perhaps it was because I expected so much of this slim little book, and perhaps it was because it had received so much praise from people who really know their literature, that even now, a couple of weeks after I finished it, I’m still feeling the sting of disappointment. There are lots of things to admire in ‘Goblin Secrets’, not least of which is William Alexander’s facility with language – he can write, and he can write well. His sentences are poetic and rhythmical, his images are arresting, and I loved the way he divided up the book into scenes and acts, instead of chapters. I loved the touches of steampunk in here – the automata, the mechanical legs that Graba uses – and I loved, too, the hints at deeper themes we find in the way Alexander portrays the goblins. They were once human, but have ‘Changed’; they are not technically citizens of Zombay, the city in which the book is set (despite living there), so they are not given the same rights and privileges as the unChanged (i.e. humans), and eke out a lesser existence. There’s a lot packed into this in relation to social class and racism, and the horror of prejudice – but it’s never unpacked. We’re never told how or why they Change, for instance, which I thought was a big omission. There is a Northside (clean and ordered) and a Southside (disordered and underprivileged) to Zombay, and a bridge across its vast river which is a ‘neutral ground’ between the two halves of the city. All these ideas are great, but you might have noticed me using the words ‘hints’ and ‘touches’ above – all we ever get are hints and touches in this infuriatingly underdeveloped book.
The story is based around the theatre, taking as its premise the idea that acting and performing are illegal in Zombay, where Rownie, an orphan, lives under the ‘guardianship’ of a witch named Graba. A very clear mix between the Baba Yaga of Russian folklore and the self-interested survivor Fagin from Dicken’s ‘Oliver Twist’, Graba uses, rather than protects, the orphans who live under her charge. One day, a troupe of goblin actors (who are not governed by the same laws as the unChanged humans, and so do not have to abide by the ban on acting) announces they are putting on a play – so, of course, Rownie attends, and of course he ends up becoming absorbed into the troupe. This is not only because of Rownie’s own fascination with the outlawed art of acting, but because he hopes the goblin troupe will help him find his missing brother Rowan, who also had an interest in the theatre. Masks, in the world of Zombay, have a strange power – at times, they become ‘alive’, imbuing their wearer with some of that power and infusing them with whatever emotion the mask depicts – and this is one of the reasons why performance is dangerous and outlawed. Rownie, and Rowan before him, have some sort of affinity with the masks, and Rowan seems to possess an indistinct and undefinable power over the river which runs through Zombay.
So. We have a boy searching for his brother. We have mystery surrounding the theatre and its power. We have cool ideas such as animal hearts being used as a source of fuel for the mechanical ‘people’ who live in Zombay (why wasn’t more made of this?!). We have the possibility of great characters in figures like Graba. But the book is like a fledgling bird who just isn’t brave enough to take the big bad jump into the brave new world. It has so much potential to be fantastic, but it never lives up to its own promise. I can’t tell you how often I stopped, confused, while reading this book and flipped back a few pages to check whether I’d skipped or missed something, or misunderstood a vital plot point. I hadn’t. It was just that stuff wasn’t explained properly, and wasn’t elaborated upon in enough detail. I know you’re not supposed to be overly wordy, and brevity is king (particularly in books for the 8+ age group), but it shouldn’t be at the expense of plot, or characterisation.
Speaking of characterisation – that’s a problem here, too. I never got a sense of who Rownie was, and I particularly never got a handle on Rowan. Some of the goblin characters could have been interesting, but we never got a chance to really meet them. I don’t know about you, but if I can’t get a feel for the protagonist of a book, I find it hard to warm to the book. I couldn’t get a feel for Rownie.
I was also completely blindsided (not in a good way) by the plot, which seemed, to me, to change direction without warning at the end of the book. Not a lot happens besides Rownie spending time with the goblins for ages, and then in the last few pages, suddenly the whole world of Zombay is under threat and only the boys can save it, etc. Perhaps I missed something – perhaps my attention wandered and I lost some of the plot. But perhaps I didn’t.
So, in short, ‘Goblin Secrets’ is a beautifully written book (and its author seems to be a wonderfully nice man, too, if his blog is anything to go by), but I just can’t shake the feeling that it could have been so much more than it is. If anyone who has read the book would care to comment and let me know what they thought, I’d be delighted. Maybe some of the questions left unanswered in this book are due to the fact that ‘Goblin Secrets’ is the first book in a series, but I don’t think I’ll be coming back for another helping of Zombay life, so I shall – alas – never know.
It feels weird to be in disagreement with Ursula LeGuin, you know. I’m not sure I like it, but there you have it. I hope someone can tell me what I missed about this book, or whether it’s worth giving it another go.
Happy weekend, everyone.