Secret Heart by David Almond

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Secret Heart by David Almond

Category: Teens
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Secret Heart is full of magical imagery and beautiful lyricism. It is never artificial. It has David Almond's signature blend of mysticism and realism. It is recommended for all teenagers, but the sensitive and imaginative in particular. It's recommended for all adults, too.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 208 Date: January 2002
Publisher: Hodder Children's Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 0340743697

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"You were the loveliest thing I ever saw, tiny bonny baby lying at my side. I knew from your very first cry that you'd feel things more than any other, be scared more than any other, be overjoyed more than any other. I knew you wouldn't have an easy ride."

And, just as his mother predicted, for Joe Maloney life is not an easy ride. On the outside he is a shy, lonely child with odd ways and a stammer. Words trip themselves up on his tongue, and often they trip him up, in his head, before they even get to his tongue. Other people; teachers, children, anyone really, confuse and frighten Joe. They are so clumsy and brash, and physical and cruel. He can't bear to go to school, where the confusion of it all swirls around so much that he feels almost as though he can't breathe. He hasn't many friends and wherever he goes the taunting cry from the bullies of "lalalala it's only Maloney" fills his ears and his head, blocking his thoughts. Joe's mother loves him and supports him and sees his troubles but she is afraid, for his truancy may mean that he is taken from her. Joe is afraid of being taken away too, but he is powerless to change the way things are.

For on the inside Joe is not a stumbler. He has a secret heart that can see and hear and feel things which loud, brutish people cannot. His world is filled with creatures that live on the edges of his vision and whisper to the limits of his hearing. When he is alone he can merge with them and find an understanding that, for him, is lacking most of the time:

"He knew how the lives of people and the lives of beasts could merge out here in the wasteland. He knew what it was to be Joe Maloney but also more than Joe Maloney. Out here by day he could rise into the blue like a skylark. At night he could flicker through the darkness like a bat. He emptied his mind now of being just Joe Maloney. He felt weasel fur growing on the backs of his hands. He felt claws where his fingers were. He hissed and he was a snake slipping through ancient cellars beneath the Blessed Chapel. He crouched on all fours and his face and teeth sharpened as he took on the shape of a fox. Nobody knew that he knew how to do these things. They were secret, things that grew from his secret heart."

But something has to give. Things cannot carry on as they are. When the circus comes to town Joe hears its mystic cry for help, but he also hears it answer his own cry. And he sees its tiger in his dreams. The circus has no real tigers any more but the tiger that once prowled its ring, frightening, dazzling and exhilarating the audiences with its terrifying beauty and power is still there, still there for people like Joe, and like Corinna, the trapeze girl who befriends him. The travelling circus is dying but it owes a debt to the past and must honour the tiger by setting it free, and with it themselves. They have been waiting a long time for Joe, waiting to find the person who can help them bring the circus to a rightful end. And out in the wasteland, thinking of Nanty Solo, the old lady lobotomised by the Real World, and set free from her pain by precious relics from the past, thinking of Hackenschmidt, the worlds greatest wrestler and teacher of wonders, thinking of Joff and Stanny Mole who sacrifice for evil, thinking of Joe's mother who sees but can't understand, Joe and Corinna must lead the tiger, and themselves, to some peace.

Oh, you know. I've not explained it properly at all. How can you explain magic? How can you explain the nasty, brutish ways of those with feet of clay? Secret Heart is an incredibly intense book, Joe's story, Corinna's story, the tiger's story, the story of light and darkness, the real world, and the one of dreams, takes place over only three days. David Almond demands a lot from his young readers I think, but he returns so much more. Here is a tale of bigotry and the fear of difference, where imagination and feeling mark a child out for bullying and cruel treatment. But here also is a tale of the surreal, of the mystic and of other worlds where such things do not matter. The final chapters of Secret Heart are set in the ordinary world but they have such a dreamlike quality that this ordinary world seems almost to merge with the private worlds of feeling that live within us all. They are beautiful words. I think children respond with huge feeling when they read of injustice and I think children have unspoiled imaginations which see the things Joe sees more easily than do we adults. And I think David Almond sees that, and wants to preserve it for them. He sees the power of story and wonder with their eyes, and the eyes of a child are often so much more clear and true than those of an adult, aren't they? So this may seem an ambitious book for a child, both in structure and in theme, but really it isn't at all.

Written, as ever, perfectly for children, with rhythm and a sparse but beautiful vocabulary, full of imagery but lacking in too-clever and dreadfully artificial wordplay and simile, and with an emotional intensity that almost knocks your breath completely out of your body, Secret Heart is a wonderful book. I read in an interview with Almond that he wrote this story shut away in a peaceful place, alone with his thoughts, whereas his previous, perhaps darker, but certainly more public Heaven Eyes was written within the eye of the publicity storm that followed the publication of Skellig. And you can tell. Secret Heart, like its title, seems private to me. It's the sort of book you need to read alone, for it is full of its author, full of its characters, full of its story, and somehow reading it, it makes you feel full of you. It's real and mystic, new and old, blunt and poetic. Let me leave you with my favourite part:

"A broken skylark shell, speckled white. Joe touched. The curved inside was dry, but sticky on his fingertip. He dreamed of the thing that had been in there, white and yolk that had turned to bone and flesh and feather, the thing that had bitten its way out, that had dared to fling itself into the air. He looked into Corinna's face, speckled white. He looked through to the forests and crags and caves behind her eyes. And their faces turned together to the air, where a storm of larks danced high on the wind and sang.

'Miracle,' said Joe.

'Miracle,' said Corinna."

Lovely.

A more realistic book about difference and injustice is Mildred D Taylor's story of segregation, Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry.

Buy Secret Heart by David Almond at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Secret Heart by David Almond at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Secret Heart by David Almond at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Secret Heart by David Almond at Amazon.com.


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