Boo by Neil Smith
|Boo by Neil Smith|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A novel narrated by a dead 13 year old boy writing from heaven that's not your average heaven nor your average dead-13-yr-old-boy fiction. A funny, sad, surprising, unsentimental, highly original adult/YA cross-over novel that grabbed me by the imagination and wouldn’t let go.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: May 2015|
|Publisher: William Heinemann|
Oliver Dalrymple is dead. He realised this the moment he woke up in the rebirthing bed. His friends and tormentors had always called him Boo because of his ghostly pale complexion and now he's finally earned the nickname fully. What he hasn't realised is the way in which he died; he thinks he died of holey heart problems in front of his locker while reciting the periodic table. The location is correct but, meeting Johnny (an equally dead former classmate) reveals, he was actually murdered. What's worse, their murderer has been spotted there in 13 year olds' heaven.
Canadian author Neil Smith is used to acclaim. His first collection of fiction Bang Crunch (2007)opened a few critics' eyes as to Neil's originality. The Guardian critic at the time called it ... rare fusion... and first rate prose. Now we have Boo, his second book and the originality aspect still weaves through this. Is it first rate prose, once again? Oh yes, most definitely!
When we try to envisage a story about a child or young person communicating from the after-life we can be forgiven for thinking it'd be combined with a degree of sentimentality or, perhaps, as in the exemplary The Lovely Bones an air of almost melancholy poeticism. We would be forgiven but in this case very much mistaken as Neil gives us a story with a totally different feel.
To begin with Neil's heaven isn't what we'd imagine. It's a series of self-contained worlds or Towns, mimicking the facilities and feel of earthly towns but divided along age lines. There's a heaven/town for each age, corresponding to the age of the occupants when they die. Boo and his companion Johnny are therefore in Town 13.
Zig (God by another name) of course has oversight and works his wonders to perform via a pastoral and security force known as the 'do-gooders'; just one of the religious concepts that Neil has fun with along the way. Another example is the subtle parallels between the food in the Town's warehouse and the conditions under which manna appeared to the Old Testament children of Israel.
As for the cast of characters, they grabbed me from the first sentence about heavenly toothpaste preferences.
Boo, our star, is a definite science geek. The periodic table is his comfort and refuge at times of trouble or stress; something that Neil uses well. Demonstrating mood via chemical elements may be little off the wall in fiction but it definitely works – even for a school chemistry-phobe like me.
Boo falls into a small gang of friends; him, Johnny and the sublime Esther and Thelma. These four are right up there with any group of youngsters we've comfort-read about in our past be it Charlie Brown etc, the Famous Five or the likes of Tom and Huck. The heavenly quartet's conversations are authentic, demonstrating the fun, discovery and uncertainty of the age and ensuring that, alongside its surprises and sense of adventure, this would also make a great YA cross over novel.
No one in Town is particularly goody-goody or perfect; it's not that kind of heaven. Johnny is troubled by nightmares from the murder. Whereas Boo is trying to remember his demise but doesn't feel badly enough affected for admission to the 'sadcon' – the hospital for the sad and confused. Thelma and Esther are the old hands showing them around... old being 13 of course.
There are some interesting subtle changes in the group as we go through the book. Indeed, it's reassuring that even after death, character development isn't neglected. In fact in some ways this is a coming of age story in a dead-and-not-aging way.
Could Neil have just written a coming of age story based among the living? He could but then we'd lose the psychological twists around the after effects of murder upon the victim and the unique edges such as the girl who had hoped for heavenly angel wings, not to mention the mystery of where everyone vanishes after 50 years have been clocked up.
Boo does appear to be literary marmite as there are critical mumblings about over-suspending belief and inability to get into it. However, for each of those there's someone like me who has fallen in love with its charm, fun and subtle eloquence. This may not be the biblical heaven but on the other hand, the biblical details are a little sketchy so who really knows? Ok, apart from Boo and Neil Smith!
(Thank you to William Heinemann for providing us with a copy for review.)
Further Reading: If this appeals and you'd like to delve further into stories of the passed watching the living in some form or other, we heartily recommend The First Phone Call From Heaven by Mitch Albom or the aforementioned The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
You can read more book reviews or buy Boo by Neil Smith at Amazon.com.
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