October and her dad live in the woods. They know the trees and the rocks and the lake and stars like best friends. They live in the woods and they are wild. And that’s the way it is.
Until the year October turns eleven. That’s the year October rescues a baby owl. It’s the year Dad falls out of the biggest tree in their woods. The year the woman who calls herself October’s mother comes back. The year everything changes.
I can feel a little spark of something start to fizz inside me for the first time since the crack and the suddenly empty sky and the whistle of Dad falling
The problem with reading any of these prize longlists is that every time I read a book – each and every book – I am convinced that it will and should win!
So, even though this is the first of the Carnegie Medal Shortlist that I have read this year, I loved it and, yes, I believe it should win! Which will make it difficult reading the rest of the shortlist.
It is a quiet book, and deeply British in ways which reminded me of A Monster Calls but without the fantastical elements. We meet our narrator, October, on the cusp of her eleventh birthday, living in the wild in the woods with her father: off-the-grid, technology-free, environmentally aware. She is a delightful narrator! Spinning tales from the fragments she discovers in the woods, scaling trees, jumping into cold water, it is not a million miles away from the lifestyle I offer my daughter and she would love to live in the wild… I’m not entirely sure that she fully understands the limitations that that would impose – a life without internet, wifi or Netflix – and Balen does not romanticise away the privations and hardships of that life style. The opening chapter offers us up a dead owl!
Balen does juxtapose the wildness with urban life here – a familiar juxtaposition and tension throughout literary history back to King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Bacchae – and also October’s relationships with her father (intimate, intense and loving) and her mother (absent and cold). October’s only memory of living with her mother is of her leaving where “there’s crying and I know that I let out a shriek so loud it pierced the sky and the birds scattered”. And from that trauma, October had grown to hate the “woman who was my mother”.
What is remarkable in the novel, for me, is its generosity: whilst October hates her mother for her abandonment, it seems that her father does not blame her for being unable to live in the woods; Balen herself offers up these parents as two very different but equally good and caring characters, and yet we accept how natural October’s antipathy is too. And this somehow emphasises the tragedy of this fractured family more than making any of them unsympathetic.
The novel revolves around a moment on October’s eleventh birthday when her mother comes to visit her and October flees and, as she always does, climbs a tree, higher and further than usual. Her father follows her and falls, catastrophically.
And from this moment, alongside her grief and fear, as well as her guilt, October is forced to face the other world: London, her mother, school and friendship.
Balen’s writing style is lyrical and wonderful throughout – but she is especially good at the many moments when October is overwhelmed by her emotions. She piles experience upon experience, emotion upon emotion, in long run on sentences, almost like an uninterrupted polysyndetic stream-of-consciousness
I burn and scream and stamp and shout and I know why she told me when I was already in the car and I still try to claw the door open until my nails are ragged and raw just like my voice but I can’t unlock the handle and I throw myself at the window and scream and she stares ahead with bright eyes.
There is more than a touch of the neurodivergent about October, although that is a term never used in the novel, which is perhaps unsurprising: Balen completed her MA researching the impact of stories on autistic children’s behaviour, and as a father of a daughter facing her ADOS assessment, I found the characterisation of October to be incredibly authentic and compelling. One thing that can always bring my own daughter around, and break the cycle of her meltdowns is story: to start to read her her book has always calmed her, controlled her breathing, brought her back into be held. And here, October uses story to control her world, to find the perfect story to reconnect with and reconcile with her father. In fact, the word “story” occurs over 100 times in the novel.
The other character to mention is the owl Stig, an obvious parallel to October herself: lost and abandoned on its mother’s death, the baby barn owl is cared for by October and even brought to London on her father’s accident. Its incarceration in a cage in the rescue centre, and its subsequent release into the wild again is an obvious – perhaps slightly too obvious – echo of October’s own journey. And Stig’s progress from chick to fledgling to owl is captured beautifully in the illustrations by Angela Harding.
I loved Yusuf as a character. I loved the mudlarking chapters. I loved the assembly, which was triumphant!
In conclusion, I don’t think Balen made a single misstep with this novel from the characterisation to the structure to the language, every single sentence and moment was superb!
What I Liked
- October: a wonderful narrative voice, with neuro-divergent touches, and brave and sensitive and capable of growing.
- The language which was lyrical and beautiful and overwhelming.
- The discovery that the wild can exist in every one of us, whether we live in London or the woods, whether we grow our own food or mudlark or create jewellery.
- The school environment, which was difficult and different but full of wonderful characters like Yusuf and Daisy.
- The final scene, which was wonderful.
What Could Have Been Different
- I have to be honest, I cannot think of a single thing that could change the novel for the better.