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More dark material

If there’s one thing guaranteed to send a reviewer’s spirits plummeting, it’s opening a book and finding that the spellyng is orl rong

10 September 2011

12:00 AM

10 September 2011

12:00 AM

The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean David Almond

Viking, pp.12.99, 256

The Adventures of the New Cut Gang Philip Pullman

David Fickling Books, pp.256, 10.99

Milicent’s Book Charlotte Moore

Catnip, pp.189, 6.99

If there’s one thing guaranteed to send a reviewer’s spirits plummeting, it’s opening a book and finding that the spellyng is orl rong

If there’s one thing guaranteed to send a reviewer’s spirits plummeting, it’s opening a book and finding that the spellyng is orl rong. Bugga thys 4 a larque, hee thynks (awe wurds 2 dat effec). S’enuf 2 mayk mi brayne hert.

The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean is David Almond’s first novel for adults —his children’s books have won two Whitbread Awards. However, it shares plenty of the same preoccupations as his other work: mice, small birds, angels and an air of apocalyptic gloom. At the same time, Almond is clearly doffing his hat to Russell Hoban, who also started off by writing for children before moving into adult fiction, and to Hoban’s novel Riddley Walker in particular. Both novels are written in phonetics and set in a blasted futurist world where religious belief has slipped back into a swamp of superstition.

In Billy Dean the reason the spelling is so wonky is because Billy has never been educated. Born in a ‘tym of grate tribyulayshon’ after suicide bombers have blown the country to smithereens, he’s kept in a cellar for the first 13 years of his life by his hairdresser mother and visited occasionally by his father, a maniacal priest called Walter. Eventually, he emerges, to find himself a complete innocent in a corrupted world. His father seems to think he’s the devil while his mother is equally convinced that he’s possessed of special powers and able to communicate with the dead.
The first half of the book is brilliantly done — especially Billy’s sense of confusion as he swings between the magnetic poles that are his parents, wondering if he’s a monster, a saviour or somewhere in between. If at first the language seems like an impenetrable thicket, it proves surprisingly easy to negotiate. With great adroitness, Almond uses the misspellings to show how unused Billy is to expressing himself, and how distorted his memories of his childhood are bound to be. Then as he grows up, his spelling slowly improves.

But when Billy finally emerges from his cellar, the narrative loses much of its oomph, as well as its mystery. It’s partly that Almond’s post-apocalyptic world isn’t that different to numerous other fictional versions, and partly that relationships which were suffocatingly intense when conducted underground lose their resonance in the open air. What starts off so richly ends up by being rather watery.

Philip Pullman’s The Adventures of the New Cut Gang consists of two short novels. Both were originally published in 1994 but have been overshadowed by the His Dark Materials trilogy. They’re well worth a reissue — indeed in many respects they show Pullman at his funniest and most exuberant.

Set in 1880s Lambeth, both books feature a gang of young amateur detectives. In Thunderbolt’s Waxwork, they’re on the trail of the mastermind behind the manufacture of counterfeit coins. Pullman adds plenty of emotional tension to the mix by having one of the boys starting to suspect his own father of being responsible. There’s also a faultlessly executed set-piece in which a drunken man pretends to be a waxwork — a plan that goes awry when he can’t stop hiccuping, leaving onlookers stunned by the waxwork’s mechanical sophistication.

The Gas-Fitters’ Ball finds the gang deeply depressed by a scarcity of crime — ‘Dunno what’s got into ‘em,’ says 11-year-old Benny Kaminsky, ‘Seems to me they lost all their gumption, them crooks.’ However, their spirits soon revive with the theft of the ‘Jabez Calcutt Memorial Trophy for the Appprentice Gas-fitter of the Year.’

Once again, Pullman takes evident and infectious delight in piling up one layer of absurdity on another, ending up at the annual Gas-Fitters Ball with a splendid coup de théâtre, a quite unexpected appearance by the Prince of Wales — ‘We couldn’t resist,’ the Prince says by way of explanation. Order is eventually restored by the issuing of a royal pardon.

Charlotte Moore’s Millicent’s Book is also set in the late 19th century. Hers, however, is based on fact — Moore lives in the same house that Milicent once lived in and she wrote the book after discovering two of her diaries. Here again, we see a child struggling to comprehend the world around her —in this case her mother’s mysterious illness, her sister’s romance and her own perceived shortcomings. ‘I know I’m not a pretty girl,’ she notes matter-of-factly at one point.

What’s so impressive here is the skill with which Moore captures Milicent’s emotional state — especially the contrast between her adolescent flux and the rigid certainties she inherits from her family. As Milicent’s horizons expand, Moore shows her carefully testing each new plank to see if it will bear her weight before venturing forward. There’s plenty of darkness here — death, disease and lunacy — but Milicent’s unconscious charm carries her touchingly, even triumphantly, over all the obstacles that lie on her path to adulthood.

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