The Fire-Eaters by David Almond

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The Fire-Eaters by David Almond

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Category: Teens
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: All David Almond's novels are wonderful, but The Fire-Eaters is Bookbag's favourite. A challenging book, it is probably best approached by only the most mature of pre-teens, but after that, it's for everyone, adult and young adult alike. It's simply beautiful.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 249 Date: April 2004
Publisher: Hodder Children's Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 0340773839

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It all starts on the day I met McNulty.

Bobby Burns has just turned eleven. He's had a wonderful summer, culminating into a trip to town with his mother. It is there he met McNulty, a shattered soul, making a living turning tricks for the shoppers as a fire-eater and strongman. There's something about McNulty, but Bobby just can't quite put it into words. There is power, there is intensity but there is also a great sadness and much loneliness. And for Bobby, this meeting with McNulty has a profound effect, for it coincides with many changes in his own, hitherto carefree, young life.

Bobby has passed his eleven plus and is about to begin at the grammar school, an appallingly bleak establishment, full of discipline and corporal punishment. This education will inevitably distance him from the close, but poor community in which he lives. His oldest friendship, with Joseph a rebellious neighbourhood boy, in particular, is becoming strained and tense. His love for Ailsa, a coal-scavenger's daughter, feels as though it is under threat from a looming, separate future. Bobby's father is mysteriously ill. And in the background, the Cuban Missile crisis spreads a dank cloud of misery and fear wherever Bobby turns. It seems as if everything he knows and loves - including the very world itself - is in great peril. There are many demons, both private and public, for him to confront.

David Almond's fifth novel, The Fire Eaters is a book of elegy. It's been said that Almond is the Gabriel Garcia Marquez of children's literature. And that could well be right. His is, indeed, a brand of magic realism of the most arresting kind. His writing is powerful, emotional and lyrical. But above all else, it is full of faith. Yet you could also ally his work with the much more prosaic prose of another much-praised children's author; Jacqueline Wilson, for like her, Almond deals in situations rooted in the harsh, real world. As Wilson has written about difference - most notably manic depression in The Illustrated Mum - so is difference a recurrent theme in Almond's books. Both writers remember those who are so often left out - the ill, the damaged, the lost. The Fire Eaters discusses difference, it explores the nature of class in this country, and it speaks with sensitivity of a young boy's fears, griefs and anxieties. And yet it's never gloomy but rather, always beautiful.

It's a very special kind of fantasy, The Fire Eaters, set very deep in reality. It is the voice of our reachings-out for explanations of the riddles of our lives and for enrichment of their texture. It's partly dream-story, partly superstition. And just as superstition lies squarely between fear and hope, so does the world in which Bobby lives. Perhaps not for the youngest of young readers, no matter how enthusiastic - unlike Skellig, Almond's first novel - The Fire Eaters is a challenging book, encouraging children to confront prejudice, fear and grief. It's not afraid to ask them the hard questions. And it's not afraid to allow them to find their own answers. For that reason alone, it's a triumph. It would make a wonderful text for a reading group in school, but it's perhaps best enjoyed alone and in the private, vicarious world journeyed to only by means of the greatest of books.

David Almond writes for the soul, not for the intellect. He writes - sensitively and imaginatively - of magic and the redeeming power of love. In The Fire Eaters, we see the worst of humanity, but we also see the best. And I think that is this man's peculiar talent. He recognises that man is perhaps not the most likeable of nature's progeny. He kills for fun, he steals, he's well on the way to destroying the planet. But unlike any other creature, he knows - deep down - the depths of his failings. And sometimes - just sometimes - he makes efforts to put things right. Children, in particular, often have a burning desire to put things right. Almond sees this. And this is why his words are so appealing. They get right to the heart of our fears and insecurities; the things which so often are the cause of our sins. And with those floating, dreamy words he counsels his readers to accept those fears and the pain they bring, then put them aside. All it takes is love and a little of Almond's particular brand of magic.

It would, indeed, be a better world if we all listened more often to people like him.

A book about difference more suited to children who like less magic and more realism is The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson.

Booklists.jpg The Fire-Eaters by David Almond is in the Top Ten Teen Books That Adults Should Read.

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