Oh, come on David, surely you’ve gone too far this time. David – or Mr Almond, I should say, with due deference to my number one favourite author of all time – even genius has its limits. A Song for Ella Grey should fall flat on its face, should sound a bum note. How could it not?
This, believe it or not, is the drill. Orpheus – you know, the guy from Greek mythology – pitches up on a beach, not a sun-kissed Aegean beach but a beach in Northumberland, and, if that wasn’t daft enough, Orpheus, the guy from Greek mythology, has an accent, a why-aye-man type North East accent.
And then, well, he wanders around like it’s an every day thing to have a guy from Greek mythology come round for tea and make why-aye-man small talk. As you do.
I should have stopped reading.
I should have laughed, like when Alan Partridge pitches his latest dotty idea talent show (Monkey Tennis anyone? Or, try this, Orpheus in Otterburn?).
But I didn’t.
I read on. Enraptured, enthralled, transfixed, with a knot tightening in my stomach as each word, each sentence, unfolded and revealed a story that is painful, powerful and – here comes the genius has no limits bit – utterly convincing. It works, and works brilliantly.
And for this, in the presence of David Almond, I can only doff-my-cap, throw rose petals in his path, lie prostrate and grind my nose into the dust. What a writer. What eyes and ears this man has – how alive to the world around him and to the sensitivities of those who live upon it.
His sentences are deceptive. In passing, it’s not important to the narrative, he describes the mud drying by a river – it doesn’t just dry, it clicks as it dries. Yes, David, it does. It does click, you just have to listen so, so carefully. His writing is simple, yet revealing of hidden truths.
There are big, profound themes in play. There’s love and an exploration of sexuality and attraction (a children’s book in name, but not one for little people). He imagines the first flush of teenage lust with tenderness, finding beauty in what can be an oh-so-awkward time of life. He writes about those first feelings that lead boy to girl, girl to girl and boy to boy. How I want my children to read this when they are older to know that, whatever they are and whoever they love, they are fine, it’s OK.
And, of course – if you know the Orpheus myth, A Song for Ella Grey is about temptation and loss. For Almond fans (dare I say Almond nuts?) there’s much that chimes with his other work, particularly Skellig and the Fire Eaters (all these books have a mysterious, other-worldly character and explore in some way what it is to belong, or to not belong; to be part of something but also on the outside of it).
People say it’s tough to be a child or a young adult these day, and it is tougher now than ever before. This generation may be lumbered with banker’s debts, the icecaps may be melting. But they are lucky to be alive and lucky to be alive now. Because David Almond is with us. And because David Almond is writing books like A Song for Ella Grey.