When we got the books for the Carnegie Shadowing in school, there was a lot of excitement that this was a book about a dyslexic, in the voice of a dyslexic, written by a dyslexic. Obviously, in an educational environment, it was … enticing. And, whilst that is all true, that is only minor part of the book: the is a novel with a dyslexic protagonist; it is not a book about dyslexia.
The main character was Standish Treadwell: dyslexic and heterochromatic, 15 year old schoolboy and orphan.
Standish world is an unusual one: he lives in Zone Seven in some post-apocalyptic alternative universe. There are elements that are familiar here in Standish’s school days, elements that are Fascist and echo the Nazi obsession with purity – which makes the different coloured eyes and different intelligence of Standish dangerous and subversive; and elements of Soviet Russia. Gardner does not develop the political or historical roots of the world; instead she just plants the reader directly into it. Many reviewers have found that difficult, which I don’t understand: there are enough recognisable elements for the world to make sense and Standish’ story operates in that world.
The story is actually rather complex
: alongside Standish’ life at school, his need to deal with bullies (both fellow students and teachers) and his developing friendship with new neighbour Hector, his parents have been removed by the tyrannical Motherland and his grandfather is part of an underground resistance group. And this is within the context of The Motherland attempting to land a man on the moon on order to demonstrate its scientific, strategic and technological superiority in the style of the American-Soviet space race. Possibly inspired by the moon landing conspiracy theories, Standish becomes embroiled in a theatrical reconstruction of the moon landing which has proved to be impossible.
The language of the novel is a tad unusual: on the one hand, Standish comes across as childish in some of his language; and at other times the rather sparse prose becomes almost lyrical with phrases like
One thing bled into another. The wound kept oozing grief, no matter how many bandages of ‘it will be alright’.
There are some moments in the book that may upset done younger readers: Sally Gardner seems not to believe in patronising her young adult readers, especially in the final chapters of the novel.
This is one of those books which will remain with the reader after the final page. There is a haunting beauty to it and to its characters. It didn’t grip me the way some novels do, but I feel that it will linger and haunt and echo inside me for a long time, maturing in the memory.