Fast becoming a household name, first through word of mouth, then by winning both the Costa Book Award & the prestigious Carnegie Medal, Dyslexic author Sally Gardner’s powerful novel Maggot Moon has a lot of hype surrounding it. You know what? It totally deserves the attention.
The novel is set in 1956, in an unnamed totalitarian state, with many direct influences taken from post WW2 East Germany & other Soviet States, where the rule of the government is absolute, & those deemed “undesirable” are rubbed out, vanished without a trace: The Motherland. No-one asks why, because these people don’t mean a thing, & asking questions just gets you disappeared in the middle of the night as well. The story follows a young undesirable by the name of Standish Treadwell, a teenage boy who can’t read or write, with the imperfection of one blue eye, one brown. Somehow, Standish has flown under the Government’s radar, & he spends much of his time daydreaming in school (or being beaten with a cane for his inability to read & write), or scavenging a living with his grandfather in the house they live in, in the ghetto known as Zone 7. One day, someone new moves into Zone 7, a family with a son roughly Standish’s age called Hector. Hector sees Standish for what he truly is; not a dim-witted illiterate, but a person of powerful imagination who is able to think so far outside the box, the box is a dot on the horizon. Simply, Standish is a genius who just never bothered with the basics, because his brain was elsewhere. The two boys soon become inseparable, with Hector helping deal with Standish’s bullying problem (from students & teachers alike), & the two of them building a flying saucer in the loft to escape The Motherland & the Earth altogether, to their dreamed-up safe haven The Planet Juniper. The whole of this is set against the backdrop of The Motherland’s planned manned launch to the Moon, to solidify their power over the rest of the World (known as the Obstructors).
Wow, okay, so I’ve read Sally Gardner before & absolutely loved it (SEE: The Double Shadow), but she has absolutely outdone herself in Maggot Moon as a professional master of the English Language. Standish’s narrative is full of clever twists & unusual metaphors that really help drive home how his unique mind works & processes language… Just an example:
“Now I knew what a fish might feel in the plug was pulled on the sea.”
The whole book is full of these brilliant lines, language play & witty plays on double meanings of words, making it a total delight to read. At one point, Standish describes words as something he collects: He might not be able to spell them or read them, but that makes the sounds they make precious, so he builds his vocabulary as much as possible. I thought this was a beautiful way as teaching Children who struggle with Dyslexia & other reading/writing problems that words aren’t their enemy, & they can still be used in powerful ways. Standish is also described by his friend Hector in this amazing line:
“There are train-track thinkers, then there’s you, Standish, a breeze in the park of imagination.”
Aside from his great use of language, Standish is a powerfully bright, quick minded individual with an endearing love of his friends & family, as well as a strong sense of right & wrong. Despite the horrors that he has spent his whole life in, his imaginative daydreams still hold hope for a better future away from the Motherland. His Grandfather is also a man of strong convictions, but much less positive than his grandson. Nevertheless, he’s made up of some very powerful emotions, both towards Standish, & his mysteriously vanished parents, & his solemn, quiet style is a good parallel to Standish’s constant, disjointed inner monologue. Hector is a great, smart character with a dry sense of humour, & he acts as a sweet defender of Standish, helping the protagonist gain confidence & come out of his shell, leading to the actions taken towards the novel’s closing chapters.
Other than Standish’s brilliant use of language, the main draw of this book for me was the author’s simple but rich descriptive style for creating the world around her characters. Zone 7 really does instantly conjure up thoughts of WW2 shanty towns & prison camps in my head; such a bleak setting is developed effortlessly through Sally Gardner’s sparse descriptions, telling more about the Motherland with what is missing, and the things that aren’t said. The book is constantly under a heavy threat of oppression, the character’s dialogue always in my head as hushed, nervous & full of trepidation. The Motherland rules this story, & even the reader starts to feel an overwhelming sense of 1984 style restriction. It’s marvellous how little this shadowy regime is shown, but through their few brutal actions, their presence is constantly lingering over every page.
Maggot Moon joins the long long list of books that managed to make me cry (manly tears, you understand). Towards the end, the beautiful struggle is taken up by the younger characters, & their determination to change their world is really touching, as well as tense. I found the last third of the book really just flowed by in no time, so gripping that I could feel myself forgetting to breathe at points. That for me is the hallmark of a great book. Sally deserves her awards, because she is a master of language.
P.S. The publishers of Maggot Moon, Hot Key Books are a passionate YA publisher starting to make a name for themselves in the UK. Look out for them! They love the books they work with, & their staff are super friendly. You can find them on Twitter at @HotKeyBooks. Congrats to them on signing this superb, award winning book!