Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just booklove miscellany in general.
I received this lovely book from Pansing last year, but I was saving my review for our current reading theme “Grey and Golden, Young and Fleeting: Ruminations on Mortality and Transient Lives.” Plus the fact that we have just recently discussed this in my book club for young readers at the Jurong West Public Library last month.
If I were to encapsulate in brief what this entire novel is all about, I would say that this is a modern, hipster retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. But that will not be doing this novel justice.
This is my fifth David Almond novel. I featured The Savage and Slog’s Dad for our Haunting Tales reading theme back in 2010, conducted a virtual discussion of Almond’s My Name is Mina for my GatheringReaders book club at the Jurong West Public Library, and raved about Skellig. In A Song for Ella Grey, Almond has once again proven how fearless a writer he is, how fierce in his open-armed embrace of pain, and his thirst for beauty and meaning.
When my book club at the Jurong West Public Library discussed the novel, I was a little apprehensive as I did not know whether my tweeners would be able to travel with Almond into the underworld as he explored the subterranean depths of pain and loss. We have, however, read and discussed My Name is Mina and so I felt a bit confident that they would be able to touch the edges of pain found in the book’s pages without drowning in it. Plus, my thirteen year old daughter consumed this book in two days’ time – such was her fascination for the novel that she couldn’t stop reading it and gushing about it.
There is a surreal, magical-realism quality to the novel that appealed to me. The entire novel was spoken through the voice of Claire, Ella Grey’s best friend, and how she sees the world. I like how she questioned everything that has happened, leading the reader to wonder whether everything was merely a figment of her imagination, if Ella Grey even existed, or if it was her way of making sense of Ella Grey’s death that made her re-imagine events in the way that she did. I also love this particular quote from the book which I shared with my book club kids – because it talks about what it’s like to be young, carefree, mad. I love how the youth’s fearless sense of invulnerability is captured – of daring death and defying the devil. This is a recurrent motif in the entire novel – seen in the book’s endpapers and the musical notes from The Magpie song where the lines “Devil, Devil, I defy thee” were taken.
The power of music and how it is portrayed here was not particularly surprising given the original Orpheus and Eurydice tale. While not technically a rockstar, David Almond’s Orpheus here is a wanderer who sings the songs of the ages, ancient in its melody, entrancing in its mysterious, inexplicable beauty that even slithering snakes and fluttering leaves stay still to listen to his voice. Clearly this Orpheus is not of this world. This is how Claire described Orpheus’ music the first time she heard him play:
For those who are familiar with the original Orpheus-Eurydice story, you would know that Orpheus traveled to the Underworld to find Eurydice to bring her back to the land of the living through his music. The way that it was retold here in Almond’s multi-layered novel is brilliant – the pages black, the typography a scratching scrawl that reflect the rough edges of the afterlife:
I also loved how he shared the power of words:
This moves me now even more as I have just visited the beautiful ancient city of Istanbul, a place where “ancient stories have their start.” And I have just fallen in love with the place.
This novel, as per David Almond’s trademark style, is heartbreaking. Almond has mastered the art of funneling his pain into a raw yet disciplined verse. He has whittled his misery into clear crisp lines that are polished and gleaming, that it leaves the reader gasping for breath, but also marveling at his craftsmanship, in the exquisiteness of his delivery. He leads you to the dark side, but does not leave you there. He just wants company, is all. He befriends the darkness and makes it his, and then when you gasp for air, you are all the more grateful for it. He leaves you with your eyes open to the amazement of what is in this world, and what is, quite possibly, out there.
Teachers’ Guide. For educators who may wish to use this in the classroom, here is an amazing downloadable 14-paged, extremely comprehensive Teacher’s Notes created by Tricia Kings and Hodder Children’s Books that would help you in unpacking the elements of the story in painstaking detail. This guide was invaluable to me when I facilitated a book club session with these young people at the library. Here are a few of our pictures together.
I also found this haunting video of The Magpie, resonating throughout the novel, with its endpapers, and the song played by Claire and her tribe as they sing around the bonfire at the beach – blazing youth, death nothing but a joke, oblivious to everything but the dance. Watch “The Magpie” as performed in an eerie, haunting way by The Bluebirds. Enjoy.
A Song For Ella Grey is shortlisted for the UK YA books of 2014.