A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
For the second time this year (only the second time, I might say), a book that I was convinced I’d adore has fallen short of my expectations and I’ve been left with that puzzled sort of feeling you get when someone tells a joke at a party and you’re the only one who doesn’t get it. With ‘Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize Winner’ and the Richard and Judy seal of approval plastered on it, Jenny Valentine’s debut novel was perhaps already too weighed down to get a completely fair trial – but I did want to love it, and I ended up somewhere between liking it and admiring it from afar.
Sixteen-year-old Lucas Swain is slightly stoned in a cab office one night when he becomes fixated by an urn on the shelf: inside are the ashes of Violet Park, an old lady who should mean nothing to him. But ‘something’ tells Lucas that it is his duty to rescue these forgotten ashes and solve the mystery behind them – why were they abandoned in the back of a mini cab? Who is Violet Park? What message is she trying to give this lonely, introverted teenager whose entire life is overshadowed by his father’s mysterious disappearance five years ago?
Although the story unravels in a very page-turning way, I found aspects of it contrived and I felt ultimately disappointed by the outcome of the mystery, coming from such an original premise. But I could have gotten over that if I’d felt emotionally involved in the story. As it was, I felt that the style – quirky and spare as it is (not usually a bad thing in my book) – created this story as a beautiful but untouchable bubble. I desperately wanted to break though the surface and get right inside the book, but I never quite made it bar a few glimpses. There was something a bit aloof and knowing about it that kept me at arm’s length.
There were things about the book that I did enjoy, like the very endearing grandfather, swaying in and out of awareness, and the rather lovely Martha – Lucas’s girlfriend – who was like the ‘angel’ of the book, not quite real but very nice to have around anyway. I liked the idea of a sixteen-year-old boy running around London with an old lady’s ashes in his rucksack, and the black humour of that central premise. I particularly liked the fact that the ending wasn’t a mawkish cop-out.
It is a very thoughtful book, and there are some lovely touches, and I’m still wondering if perhaps “It’s not you, it’s me.”