|Ribblestrop by Andy Mulligan|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: The dastardly goings-on behind the scenes at the world's oddest boarding school are darker than anyone might assume in this teen-friendly absurdist gothic romp. Broad strokes and brash characters make for fun with elements of mystery and horror, and an exceedingly bold debut novel is achieved with gusto.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 416||Date: April 2009|
|Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's|
For once I think that starting a book review with the plot is the wrong approach. This book is all about the mood it creates, and especially about the seeming intent of the author – to create the most bizarre, quirky and odd, scandalous and funny schooldays comedy known to children's literature. He's seemingly succeeded.
Ribblestrop isn't the ideal place for a boarding school. It used to be a perfectly decent cube of country pile, until one of last year's intake set fire to the place. Now it's four towers (one of which still contains the actual owner, a horrid teaset-throwing harridan), their linking corridors, and a huge gap in the middle. This enforced quad might be all dangerous rubble and tarpaulins for a roof but the headmaster gets as much use out of it as he can.
This year's batch of pupils is no less odd, as our lead-in character Sam very quickly discovers. There's the clumsiest, most butter-fingered Weevil of a chubby new school-chum, a girl who doesn't eat and seems quite happy to get expelled from school number six, a boy whose Columbian drug dealer is keeping him out of the reach of kidnappers, a kid who seems to be six foot six and thirty years old, and an orphanage-ful of human mountain goats fresh from the Himalayas, and called things like Eric. And that's almost all.
I appreciated how the characters were brought to life so brashly with a pleasing, large brushstroke, but I can't say the same about all the comedy. I might come over as some old curmudgeon, but it seemed too snide, too bludgeoningly played for laughs, too easy to dangerously mimic, for my tastes. I'm not saying all the comedy was forced down our throat – there is humour in what is unsaid too and some young readers may not pick up on everything at the first pass, but it seemed too pat to have everything utterly bizarre and implausible. See how Ruskin's conversations with Sam seem to be non sequitur after non sequitur as we get the farcical details of this most singular school given us. Witness the way things contrive for Sam to sit on the train on his way to school in just his blazer and underwear, and the gunfight that this itself partly causes.
There might have been a change in me, as I realised what the mood of the novel was supposed to be, but I think there is in fact a subtle and worthwhile, larger change in the book, as Sam gets invalided out of things, and it drifts away from the easy laughs and towards something darker. The first night scene, where the pupils learn the new school anthem, featuring as it does reference to dying for the cause of the school, accompanied – of course – by a finger of rum each and the corrupt headmaster on a broken accordion, is replaced the following morning by the school outing getting lost down an express train tunnel, the girl seemingly buried alive in a freezer…
In fact it gets so dark and dangerous I feel it worth giving a certificate 12 to it. The levity of the first quarter or so seems too easy to ease the unwary in, and what we get instead is a bit much for the weakest stomachs. For those aged the same as Sam et al – twelve and thirteen – and indeed a lot older, this book is certainly recommended. The Bookbag rating of four and a half stars did waver at times, but I considered I was grateful and very impressed that Andy Mulligan has created an entirely new style of literature – slapstick gothic – then duly abandoned it for a black comedy horror (with added football) for his first ever book.
It's the brazen approach to the unlikely, daft, dangerous and everything else that will lighten these four hundred pages of quite dense print for the right reader. I can well see this book being the turning point in someone's reading career, where they engage with the chutzpah, the bravura oddness and sheer 'how's he getting away with this?!' factor completely, and get taken on a right journey. For them it will only be a five star delight. So if your child is absorbed, thrills over this and demands a place in a boarding school, don't come complaining to us.
We would like to thank Simon and Schuster for our review copy. It's a finely put-together book, I feel like adding – the cover cartoons embellishing the whole superbly. If only the author hadn't put a llama up the Himalayas…
Shipley Manor by Tim Walker features more odd-ball goings-on in a bizarre country house, and might appeal to the younger age bracket.
Andy Mulligan was kind enough to be interviewed by Bookbag.
You can read more book reviews or buy Ribblestrop by Andy Mulligan at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Ribblestrop by Andy Mulligan at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.