Michael is living in a stage of upheaval and transition in his life: his parents have just moved to a rather derelict house, his unnamed baby sister is drastically ill, and the house is often visited by ‘Doctor Death’, the doctor sent to check up on his sister. On top of this, he now has to bus for school; the previous occupant of the house was dead for a week before anyone found him, and the outside garden is a wilderness. The garage in particular is a nightmare — slumping over, filled with junk and dead creatures, and liable to fall over any second. But Michael decides to have a peek inside, and finds an amazing discovery…
What is the strange creature hidden beneath the cobwebs and the dead flies? Is it a human, a bird or something else entirely? Calling itself Skellig, the strange being seems near death, and Michael longs to help it, feeling that in some strange way its fate is wrapped up with the fate of his baby sister. He befriends the girl living next door, Mina, who does not attend school due to her mother’s belief that school stifles children’s creativity, and soon the two have plans to move Skellig to the house across the road which is inhabited only by birds.
As his baby sister deteriorates and the family is thrown into worry and turmoil, Skellig begins to make progress, leading Michael once more to the question — what exactly is this strange creature, and can he do something — anything — to help the baby?
It is a rare book that can tell what seems to be such a simple story in such a clear, yet intoxicating way. Told in first-person narrative by Michael, David Almond effortlessly creates the point of view of a young boy in a gritty, realistic world. The language and behavior in particular is wonderful — you can really see real people speaking and acting in the ways that he describes, and the interaction with Skellig is so natural that you have no trouble believing Michael’s words.
On reading it for the second time, I also realised that not a single word is wasted in the telling of this tale — every single one serves a purpose in connecting the ideas and themes that Almond shapes together. From evolution and science to faith and miracles, to blackbirds and owls, to love and friendship — each are closely entwined together to make a complete whole. Such a complex melding of ideas and possibilities told in such an impossibly simple way, a complete lack of sophistication and yet so much depth and meaning is not something you’ll find in just any children’s book. I say again: not a single word is wasted.
Sad and joyful, poignant and funny, thought provoking and mysterious — the only book that I could possibly compare it to is The Owl Service by Alan Garner. The two authors seem to have the same style and techniques — telling the reader only what they need to know and letting them discover the rest for themselves. And what is discovered are endless possibilities for humanity, life — and yes, even death. The winner of both the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year and the Carnegie Medal certainly counts for something, and this deceptively slim novel certainly deserves more than one read and a permanent place on the bookshelf.