CREATURE OF THE NIGHT by Kate Thompson. Bodley Head pbk.
This novel is on the shortlist for the Carnegie Medal and also on the shortlist for the Lancashire Book of the Year Award, with which I am involved as a kind of 'enabler' for the young judges.
It's a remarkable book in many ways. For one thing, it's a masterclass in how to write in the first person. Thompson's young narrator, Bobby, is fourteen years old. He finds himself in the depths of the country with his mother and four-year-old brother and he bitterly resents every moment away from the gang of tearaway friends he left behind in Dublin. To say that this family is dysfunctional is an understatement. Bobby's mother makes Jacqueline Wilson's eponymous Illustrated Mum look like Penelope Leach. We find out later on in the book one of the reasons for her being the way she is, but meanwhile, her behaviour in every regard is a template for fecklessness. Fathers don't figure. Bobby and Dennis have different dads but the only information we get about either of them comes from Bobby and he's not saying much.
The family from whom Bobby's mother rents the cottage is totally different in every possible way. When Bobby wrecks a car he's stolen, he has to pay back the damage by working for PJ Dooley, the farmer and paterfamilias. PJ's son Colman and Bobby slowly develop a friendship. There are setbacks and problems of every kind throughout the story and I'm not going to spoil it by detailing the plot.
But so far, so ordinary, however well done. What's amazing about this novel (which could give Roddy Doyle a run for his money, I think) is the vein of 'fairy' running through it. Not in an obtrusive, magic-bursting-into-real-life way but in a subtle, creepy, getting-seriously-under-your-skin way which worries Bobby and worries the reader even more. It turns out that the cottage has a history. It's haunted but only little Dennis actually sees the hideous visitant and when an dismembered body from some while back is discovered in a badger hole (which may or may not be part of the fairy kingdom) we begin to believe that perhaps the murderer wasn't entirely human. It's truly scary and extremely well done and you end up not really knowing for sure. Generally speaking, I dislike open endings but this one is wonderful. It's kept me on edge for days, wondering whether what I think the author means is indeed what I think....and one could debate it. But the effect is to keep you turning the pages long into the night.
Bobby's voice, though, is the real triumph: his telling of his own story. You believe every word he says, even the swear words and there are plenty of those. He behaves very badly indeed and yet we're on his side and we like him and sympathize with him. He's had a lot to contend with in his life. The ending gives room for hope but it's sad in several ways.
This is an outstanding book. I hope (without having read any of the others!) that it wins the Carnegie. And though I can't influence the young judges in Lancashire, they'll get soome notion of my opinion when we come to discuss the book on May 22nd. Watch this space...and buy this book.