Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Review: MAGGOT MOON, by Sally Gardner

I've just finished reading Sally Gardner's new novel Maggot Moon (Sept. 2012 Hot Key Books (UK)/Feb. 2013 Candlewick Press (US)) and I need to tell you about it.  If you like young adult fiction, you should do yourself a favour and read this novel as soon as you can.  It's amazing.

I figured it would be very good, because I really loved Gardner's first novel, I, Coriander (2005), set after the English Civil War and complete with evil step-mothers, fairy worlds, and witch hunts.  (You can see how this became an influence on my own work-in-progress novel).  Plus, Gardner writes beautiful, rich, original prose.

She has also written three other YA novels, two of which I own but shamefully haven't read yet: The Red Necklace (2007) and The Silver Blade (2009) (both set around the French Revolution, with automata!) and The Double Shadow (2011), in which a teenage girl is placed in an alternate world created by her father for her safety in the lead up to World War Two.  She's also writing a mystery series for young children called Wings & Co.

So, there's a great backlist for you to dig into if you get hooked on Gardner's writing.

My second inkling that Maggot Moon was going to be amazing came when Meg Rosoff tweeted that she thought this book would win next year's Carnegie Medal.  High praise indeed.  (And the novel has indeed been long-listed for the prize; it has also been short-listed for the Costa Children's Book Award).

Onto the book itself.  I'll quote the flap copy because I don't want to give away too much of the plot, as this book is structured in large part on flashbacks and the carefully paced revelations Gardner allows the reader.
When his best friend Hector is suddenly taken away, Standish Treadwell realises that it is up to him, his grandfather and a small band of rebels to confront and defeat the ever present oppressive forces of The Motherland. 
Friendship and trust inspire Standish to rise up against an oppressive regime and expose the truth about a planned moon landing in this original and spellbinding book.
This novel reminded me, at different times, of Nineteen Eighty-Four (in terms of the people who are disappeared, the constant surveillance, the dictatorial government), The Hunger Games (Zone 7, where undesirables seem to live reminded me of Katniss's District 12), The Book Thief (as Standish's Motherland in 1956 looks a lot like a possible alternate history, if the Nazis had indeed taken over Britain - plus another important element that I won't mention for fear of spoilers), and Code Name Verity, which I blogged about earlier this year (because the book is focused on the joy that Hector brings to Standish's life, giving him self-esteem, helping him to dream of a better life, standing up to his bullies, and also because Standish will do anything to help his best friend).

Despite these comparisons, the book very much stands out as an original, especially if you compare it to other YA dystopian novels out there at the moment.  It takes place in 1956, as the authoritarian Motherland plans to make a moon landing in order to prove its superiority to the Enemy Nations.  It involves a secret, friendship, family, bravery, and sacrifice.  Our extremely likeable narrator Standish is dyslexic and has eyes of two different colours.  He is an outcast and under threat in this society which values "purity" but he will dare all for his best friend.  Standish and Hector together imagine a world like the one they see on their illegal television - something like a version of the 1950s American dream - Cadillacs, ice cream, croca cola, Technicolor.  All the things they are denied in Zone 7.  They also dream of space travel, of escape to the imaginary planet Juniper and the better world it represents.

One slightly spoilery thing that broke my heart: the Motherland has created a twisted version of Blake's hymn "Jerusalem" for propaganda purposes.  Watch for a Casablanca moment involving this song.  (Some of you will get the reference, I hope).

And keep tissues handy!

Some notes on the book as a physical object:

Hot Key Books has produced a lovely hardback, with illustrations in each chapter of a fly, a rat, and many maggots.  See if you can figure out the significance behind this (rather macabre) progression of illustrations.  I have my own theory.  But, hurrah for illustrations, above all else!  I'm so happy to see illustration becoming an element of more books, at all age levels.

Hot Key Books also characterises the content of each of its novels.  On a wheel on the back of the book jacket, the reader learns that this book contains 50% friendship, plus danger, rebellion, and a conspiracy theory (making up the other 50%).  What a clever way to communicate themes and content!

One other indicator of content had me slightly more concerned, however.  There is also a warning: "Contains some strong language".  This is true.  I suppose I can also see why this warning might be useful to parents in selecting books for their children to read.  But to me it also smacks of the controversy surrounding the option of age-banding books for children, which has been recurring issue in the news in the UK.  Authors have consistently come out against this, because it seems to dogmatise what is appropriate for readers based solely on their age, a dodgy business at best.

Standish swear a lot.  Sometimes rather imaginatively.  But I suspect if you were a teenager living under these circumstances, you'd probably find a lot to swear about as well.  And it's an integral part of his narrating voice.  Is it necessary to warn parents about this?  My theory has been a) that words are just words and b) that if teenagers swear/have sex/drink,etc., there isn't much point in protecting teens from things that already occur within their age group.  So that's my take on the language warning.  You may well disagree with me.

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