To review a book is either pleasurable or piteously painful, depending on what you have got on your hands. I can honestly say this handsome treasure by A.F Harrold (illustrated by Levi Pinfold) for young people makes me smile slightly every time I spot it (casually awaiting my stolen moments in time) on the desk. Hardbacked and dust-jacketed, I felt elegant just holding it. I loved reading this book. I loved reading what is essentially a tragedy to me. Friendship, parenting, the supernatural and love all feature as key themes combining to form a tale of intrigue with more than a tinge of sadness.
A beautifully sibilant title, ‘Song From Somewhere Else’ is consistently sonorous in tone from the mysterious title to the last line, singing strangely to you across every page. Beautifully illustrated by Levi Pinfold, this is somewhat a gothic modern day fairy story, brutal reality at times juxtaposed with magically surreal moments. Tim Burton would be my director of choice for this story. Strange, angular creatures from other worlds appear alongside the mundane dad making tea or the the group of bored teenagers living their own version of Lord of the Flies in the town park before they head home to an absent parent home or a grim supper.
Frank (Francesca) is quickly introduced as a victim of bullying. Blissfully ignorant parents smile at the group of boys who harass her, terrifying me as a new mother. Can parents be so unaware of their children’s misery? The thought appalls me as I read Francesca’s tale. Yet I remember my own teens. Many the day I kept a horrible experience secret from loving parents. Just as Frank does. Haunting images of the frail, frightened Francesca, as her head hangs in her loneliness, are painted in both words and sketch on every page. Threatening shadows prevail on every street corner exacerbating her solitude. Her stomach appears almost as a character in its own right as her digestive system is held hostage to her tumultuous daily world. The foreshadowing of sadness occurs early on as Frank searches for a much beloved and fabulously named cat, Quintiles Minimus. As someone who has named a black feline Humphrey Bogart, I am drawn to this girl immediately.
The theory that we are all bullies and victims in life at different stages of our lives is quickly brought to the fore with the introduction of classmate Nick. Frank’s treatment of the much scathed and teased Nick can lead the reader to judge their heroine harshly. He falls to the bottom of the pile when it comes to the teenage predatory circle of life and leads to me wonder. Would I have acted any differently as a teenager? Concerning to think, possibly not. The bullying escalates in a grittily true way, cleverly demonstrated by a two page sketch of nettles as the climax of the torture is reached. Words are not always necessary. Frank’s desperation and terror combine to create her horrific actions. It is possibly easier to forgive her as an adult. I wonder would a tweenage reader empathise or criticise? Nick’s family story is the enigmatic mystery of the piece. It is the unexpected salvation of Frank- in a less than predictable way.
Shades of grey, blacks and whites dominate this teen mystery in both copy and imagery creating a dramatically tense environment as the plot progresses. A colourless world is depicted, at times almost totally lacking in hope or joy. Pinfold’s beautiful illustrations were captivating and brought the tale to life as I found I wanted to study every image. This is not to lesson Harrold’s writing in anyway. As an English teacher I almost compulsively felt a need to underline (I didn’t do it as I couldn’t ruin the book!) most effective uses of imagery which were employed throughout, as examples for a student to learn from. Delicate personification, accessible pathetic fallacy- the reason this plot is hauntingly atmospheric. A beautiful piece of writing and a visual joy.
I would be concerned that a young person may take the message that world is a sad place. On the other hand, I think they can handle this message better than I – a thirty something mother! I will honestly admit that one scene made me sob, truly ugly cry, for another mother. As a younger person, it is likely this scene would be much simpler to deal with. So I would leave it you. If your young adult loves dark mystery and social drama on an enigmatic level, this is the one they need. If they enjoy looking at charcoal or pencil sketch visuals, this is a must.
I am waiting for the moment to buy this book for a young person. I can think of many adults that will adore it. As it stands, I don’t want to give it to my relations under ten, probably due to the grip on reality in the plot. Maybe I don’t want to expose these children to the ugly world of intimidation that Francesca Patel abides within, even if it has a resolution. Maybe I am part of The Cotton Wool Gang. The youngster I get this for this for must have a love of the supernatural. Then again- I was personally gripped by this tale. A childhood lover of Blyton, an avoider of anything too ghostly, this was a book I may have turned away in my youth. Which would have been a terrible shame.
Of course, I really, really wanted to know what happened to the cat…as I am sure you do too. You will have to read yourself to find out.
As a Boolino friend, I am occasionally sent books to read and review. I receive no payment for this, but will have a free copy of the text. All opinionated ramblings appearing here are very much my own! Hope you enjoyed.