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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Grad School Reviews: Skellig

[NOTE: This one is less a review and more of a semi-structured ramble as I wrote about Skellig for the "Critical Essay" portion of my Hamline application. I'm writing more and better critical essays with a real thesis to argue for (or from as the case may be) in the months ahead, but as this is on my list of required reading materials, I figured I'd post my thoughts here.]

By David Almond
Buy it on Amazon

David Almond's Skellig is a deceptively complicated book. I throw the adverb in there because any book that traffics in the fears, anxieties, doubts and dilemmas we go through when faced with the potential loss of our youngest, most innocent loved ones should be understood as emotionally complex and complicated without modifier. However, the moments in Almond's narrative that give his young protagonist Michael the most room to breath and live as a character – the moments that are most complicated in the best way – grow out of some of the simplest, most straightforward passages in the text. And the effect that Almond creates comes almost entirely thanks to his control of the repeated imagery and language that surrounds the novel's three most important supporting players.

Skellig's plot is surface simple as well. Arriving in a new house just after the birth of his younger sister – a birth that was (wait for it) complicated – Michael discovers the eponymous angel/creature/myth/person trapped and defeated in the back of the ready-to-collapse garage on the house's property. As Michael forms a bond with Skellig over leftover Chinese food and stolen beers, the angel's tepid growth back towards caring about survival mirrors the peaks and valley's in the babies struggle to cling to life in a hospital miles away.

The more nuanced and almost intangible portrait of Michael's understanding of love and death that develops as this story ping pongs back and forth comes at the heels of three key relationships: his secret conversations with Skellig, his worrisome watch over his sister and his flowering friendship with Mina, the home-schooled girl next door. In the central Skellig scenes, Almond zeroes in on a number of images and turns of phrase that imbue the titular creature with a sense of mystery and attraction despite his decayed surroundings. From his earliest appearance, Skellig is always introduced by the sound of scratching – more specifically "scratching and scuttling across the floor" – a sound that creeps up on the reader just like the vague shape Almond sketches in of the character.

As he lies immobile on the floor, Skellig's world takes shape thanks to a specific set of repeated themes. The flies he consumes for his wretched survival are never flies but always "bluebottles" ¬– a more colorful phrase that brings a bit of lightness to his situation. As Michael feeds the creature a constant stream of Chines food, the meals are always, almost comically, referred to by their menu numbers: 27 and 53. And perhaps best of all, Skellig's sparse, often biting dialogue is peppered with a playful clicking of his tongue. Like a favored musical theme, these phrases and the images they bring to the readers mind make the unknown and macabre seem comforting just as Skellig becomes for Michael (with the possible exception of the ominous blackbird who hangs over the proceedings as a constant reminder of how far the angel has fallen). They make a character that could be frightening or unsettling very much relatable and endearing. It never comes into doubt why Michael returns to help Skellig time and again.

In contrast, the descriptions of Michael's sister's struggle to survive her first weeks on earth are stripped of lightness or poeticism and held in an almost cold series of sobering images. While we never get given an advanced medical reason why they prematurely born child is on the brink of death, our every glimpse of her comes through glass as she's framed "by wires and tubes" again and again. It may seem somewhat counterintuitive to elicit sympathy and concern from the reader by backing away from describing the baby in full (only rarely do we get a hint of her reactions, her smile, her skin), but the constant focus on the unnatural, alien nature of her treatment in Michael's eyes reinforces the idea of a life at stake. It makes the child seem as helpless as her brother fears as we should never think of babies as wires and tube.

Finally, Michael's friend Mina helps split the difference between they boy's constant draw to understand, help and be helped by Skellig and his constant emptiness at the thought of losing his sister. Mina and her friendship draw Michael out from the shadow of death. Just as the edge of death Skellig and the baby struggle to escape is represented by the blackbird, Mina's bright, living spirit find a counterpoint in a pair of white Tawny owls the children spy on in an abandoned house owned by her mother. This isn't a representation brought about by a stale reference to the owls existing here or there on the fringe of the story. Mina and Michael communicate across their yards at night by mimicking the owls hoots – a call which always follows the same sing-song rhythm: "Hoot. Hoot hoot hoot." Again, that image and the language and the way both are repeated specifically yet playfully in the story enrich the bond between Michael and Mina and give the reader a welcome rest from the broader issues of life and death while also offering a new prism for Michael to see his dilemma through. Mina serves a purpose in the story, but she's more than just that purpose. She's a character – a strong one – who's personality grows thanks in part to Almond's subtle wordplay.

Cumulatively, the strangely inviting decay of Skellig's garage tomb, the unnatural mechanical life lived by Michael's sister and the charming, hooting friendship brought by Mina all enrich the reading experience first and foremost. Yes, Skellig is a complicated novel whose questions about life and death, evolution and faith push the reader to think about big life issues. And yes, the repeated imagery and common language surrounding Michael's most important relationships draw out these big questions in strong, yet subtle, fashion. But most importantly, they bring the story to life. Finishing Skellig doesn't cause the reader to say "I thought so much." It makes them care about the characters with every scratch and scuttle, every bluebottle, every tube and wire and every hoot.

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