OK. I know it's another children's book, but I just couldn't keep this to myself. I will review a grown-up book soon. Promise. Well, maybe in a bit...
I'm excited by how much I love this book!
If Skellig is anything to go by, David Almond is an author I'll be reading a lot more of.
BTW - Don't read this review if you haven't read the book as it will totally spoil it for you. Just know that you have to read it. Then you can read this review AFTERWARDS and let me know if you agree. Or not.
But first (and I want to get this out of the way), the title of this book put me off reading it for a good year or so. Now I know that sounds ridiculous, but I just don't like the sound of it when I say it, when it rolls around my mouth. Say it out loud for yourself. Skellig. It's not pleasant. It doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. It's feels spiky and uncomfortable. But that's exactly what skellig is. Skellig means "splinter of a stone". It's almost onomatopoeic. Skellig Michael is also the name of one of the countless rocks jutting out of the sea around the coast of Ireland. It fits the character of Skellig absolutely. It's completely apt.
In fact, the juxtaposition of the uncomfortable with the beautiful is something that Almond plays on throughout the book. And the effect is hauntingly lovely. When Michael (interesting, don't you think, that the main protagonist is called Michael? David Almond knows about that rock in the Irish sea doesn't he! And that rock was home to a monastery as far back as the 6th century. The images of angels abound...) first sees Skellig, and indeed subsequently, the description Almond presents of Skellig is unarguably grotesque. Yet when Mina gently kisses his cheek, I found I was not repulsed. Her immediate and unquestioning affection for him, affection for a living and neglected being, overcame any initial revulsion.
The metaphors he introduces throughout the book may be obvious to the adult reader (this is, after all, a book for children), but I still found it beautifully done and not contrived at all: wings; bones; seclusion; exclusion; illness; death; evolution. The owls in the abandoned loft. The blackbird nest hidden in the tree. The dilapidated houses and gardens. The beating of the baby's heart inside Michael's own chest. The constant references to the fragility of the physical body.
I was particularly drawn to the baby's story. Michael describes how he can feel her tiny bones beneath her skin; how he can hear and feel her heart beating alongside his own and in this way, knows she is alive and safe. She is a nameless baby, which not only tells us that she was born early, before her name could be decided, but also makes her a bit less of a person. She is a fragile and beautiful baby, yes. One that Michael loves absolutely unconditionally, but without a name, she remains 'just' a baby. Not a little sister, a little person. He is distanced just that little bit from her. It's not until she is well that she is named. And it's not until Skellig begins to get stronger and fitter, gets well, that he reveals his name either. Both Skellig and the nameless baby are close to death when we meet them. As Skellig grows stronger, he is able to find the baby, take strength from her and in doing so, give her the strength to survive too.
The 'dance' in which Skellig leads Michael, Mina and, later, the baby, is another aspect of this story that moved me. The description of the hypnotic spinning, of wanting to be released but not being able to resist, and the vision of the 'ghostly wings' really resonates. It felt absolutely real and plausible. From Michael's perspective, he is drawn in by Mina's amazing, penetrating eyes, by Skellig's presence, swept away by the moment. The idea that this can heal, restore and revive touches on the very human notion of 'healing hands'; that people can't survive without kindness and love. That without this they may well 'turn to stone'.
I love the idea that our shoulder blades are where our wings used to be, and where they will grow from again when we evolve, like Skellig. I love the idea that Skellig defies definition - he says he is something like an angel, a bird. We are left to infer our own opinions.
When I put this book down after reading the last page, I felt inspired. It's a book about many things. About friendship, trust, learning, caring. It's about hope and joy (or Joy). Above all else, I felt it was about opening your mind and your heart to the world. We spend a lot of time trying to manipulate our environment, trying to make sure we come out on top, trying to be the ones to succeed (believing that we deserve to be at the top of the evolutionary chain). But what if we aren't?
Lovely, brilliantly written and incredibly beautiful to read (even though the owl pellets made me feel sick).
Buy it here.