|Counting Stars by David Almond|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: Short stories are challenging to write and also challenging to read. Counting Stars will give the thoughtful child a background to David Almond's novels and also a springboard for some thinking of their own. Adults too will find them inspirational.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 192||Date: March 2001|
|Publisher: Hodder Children's Books|
|External links: Author's website|
"She started with The Universe. Then she wrote The Galaxy, The Solar System, The Earth, Europe, England, Felling, Our House, The Kitchen, The White Chair With A Hundred Holes Like Stars, then her name, Margaret, and she paused. 'What's in the middle of me?' she said."
Splosh. There you are, in the middle of David Almond's world. Those are the first words of the first story in his collection Counting Stars and I do love them. They make me think of so many things: of Almond's world; of the ways of children; of the little wicker chair that was my chair when I was little. They have a childish, gentle rhythm which eases me into thought of my world and the central things in it. Sometimes, often even, it is hard to place oneself. Sometimes we cease even to try because our questions seem unanswerable. Children though, with their open, enquiring minds and their eagerness to discover and to learn, do try. They ask questions, they role-play in solitary games and games with their friends and sometimes, like Margaret, they try to draw their place as they see it, or to write it down.
In this story the Almond children continue their talks about the middle of things and the size of things as they visit the grave of their father and baby sister Barbara to leave flowers. They decide to leave simple daisies, their father's favourites, "He called them day's eyes. Awake in the day and closed asleep at night." They cry a little bit, they talk of the things they remember and they wonder how the graveyard will ever have room for all the bodies. They marvel at the size heaven surely is, "It must be blinkin' enormous." They talk some more about what is the smallest place of all, wondering whether it is somewhere they know, or somewhere they've only heard or read about, somewhere that exists only in their dreams, or thoughts, or imagination. They listen to the ramblings and exhortations of Daft Peter, a local tramp, and wonder if there is any truth in the things he says. And then they return home to Mam and their tea:
"Then we all sat at the little table in the bright kitchen. We ate huge slices of the warm bread, sighed at the sweetness of the sultanas, caught the melting butter with our tongues, squeezed in tight at the middle of the world."
Most of the stories in Counting Stars tell of Almond's childhood in the middle of a crowded and close Catholic family. Some are happy, some musing and wistful, some desperately sad. Almond's father died young, after a long illness and one of the saddest tells of his death; how his mother wore a brittle, superficial smile, how they kept up between them the comfortable fiction that his father would recover, of the numb and desperate desire for comfort Almond felt as his father lay in his coffin in their house and how he broke Father O'Mahoney's dire warnings by defiantly counting and counting and counting the stars in the night sky as he began to doubt his faith. Yet one of the most uplifting stories tells of a dream day where all the Almond family, dead and living, gather together in that Felling kitchen, talking and laughing, reminiscing and loving, and just being together.
Other stories move outside the family, often dealing with "outsiders" and the way such people are treated by those who consider themselves "insiders". One tells of an old lady, Miss Golightly, the local seamstress, who smells of "mints and embrocation and cologne". There are rumours that she "touches up" boys when she's measuring them for the alterations in their clothes but in reality she is a kind old woman who lives in a past world, a world before her fiance was killed in the war, a world before her baby was lost to miscarriage. Another tells of the cruel treatment at school that turned Jack Law, a vulnerable child, into a mute, lost adult and another of a "simple" girl, Loosa Fine who is abused by local boys and taken to Lourdes on a pilgrimage for a miracle that never comes.
It is often said that Almond's books are full of magic, and they are; they're full of mystery and wondering and the kind of fantasy which sees that magic has its roots right in the heart of everything we are and everything we do. It's not a Harry Potter sort of magic, it's a "middle of the world" sort of magic, which blends together memory and imagination to produce something which has a more important truth than plain facts or records of events; one that exists in our physical world, in our here and now. Whether your truth comes from religious faith, or is rooted in the physical world of the human condition doesn't really matter when you're reading either Almond's fiction or his memories as here, in Counting Stars. If you look hard enough there will be magic. It's hidden in all of us, in the relationships we make, in the love that we feel, in our wonderings at the universe, about why people are as they are, about how it is that dreadful and sad things happen.
The middle of David Almond's world, his childhood, the things that happened to him and the things that didn't happen to him but were only imagined, have produced Counting Stars. They have also produced the seeds for his fiction: his memories of his mother caressing the shoulderblades of her children and remarking on them as where their angels wings once were and will be again; the death of his father and his baby sister; the misfortune of sad, mute Jack Law. It's difficult to describe Counting Stars as either a collection of short stories or a selection of autobiographical pieces because they fall squarely between the two. I think of them as a series of impressions; memory-stories of imagination rather than event, and they are, despite some of the difficult subject matter, calming and peaceful to read. In a way, because even the sadder stories, even the one about the death of his father, have such an atmosphere of affection and nostalgia about them Counting Stars lacks some the breathtaking emotional impact of Almond's novels, but for children reading them after they've read the novels I think this is a good thing. They will inspire individual and imaginative thought rather than feelings and emotions as reactions to events in a narrative.
Almond writes perfectly for children and adults alike; his style is simple and direct, it's not overloaded with complicated metaphor but it is full of imagery. He's not afraid to confront young people with the hardest of questions about life and death (those questions which most parents have yet to answer themselves), and neither is he afraid to put the confusion of sadness and tragedy before them. He writes in such a lyrical, rhythmic, insistent way that some of the words seem almost to float off the page and speak themselves inside your head. They make you think of those stories that have been told for the longest of times, through many generations and of the importance that family and tradition have to the middle of your world. They make me think of the truths of my life, the middle of my world, and of the way I'd like to take my turn in communicating those things to my children for them to build upon with their own thoughts and imaginations.
David Almond reminds me that however many unanswered questions I have, and however many I will always have, there is always some magic to be found somewhere. There is.
Children interested in the inspiration behind writing might also like Boy by Roald Dahl.
You can read more book reviews or buy Counting Stars by David Almond at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Counting Stars by David Almond at Amazon.com.
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