Fish Boy

fish-boy

Happy New Year! For my first review of 2017, I’m going to be looking at Fish Boy, Chloe Daykin’s debut novel, which is due for release at the end of February. It’s a stand-alone story with fantastical elements, which focuses on a young boy trying to make sense of his life. Many thanks to Faber & Faber for providing me with an advance copy for this review.

Billy Shiel is twelve years old. He likes David Attenborough documentaries and swimming in the sea before school. He’s also incredibly lonely. His mother’s mystery illness has sucked a lot of fun out of his life – forcing his father to work extra hours to support the family and meaning that he spends a lot of time alone. He’s recently also become a target for the school bully, Jamie, who steals his stuff and calls him Fish Boy.

Things start to change when magic obsessed Patrick Green joins his class and befriends Billy, finally breaking him from his isolation. Yet its also around that time that a mackerel swims into his face and declares “Kezdodik”. The fact that the fish have begun to speak to Billy is confusing to say the least, but he wishes he could understand what they are saying.

When he finally shares this secret with Patrick, his new friend is surprisingly understanding. Patrick’s love of all things magic cause him to instantly believe in the fish and he pushes Billy to keep going back to find out what it wants. Yet as Billy spends more time in the sea, what he discovers changes his life forever…

Fish Boy is a beautifully written novel, though may not quite be what you’re expecting from the blurb. While it sounds like a straight fantasy story, the book has a lot in common with the work of the critically acclaimed David Almond. Think Skellig and you’ll have a bit more of an idea of what to expect from this wonderfully surreal tale.

At its core, the novel is grounded in reality. Its told from the first person perspective of a twelve year old who is struggling with the upheaval in his life. Being introspective and “unusual” he’s become the target of a group of bullies. While they’re not especially vicious towards Billy in the novel, its clear that their constant name calling bothers Billy, as he’s started to believe that everyone talks about him behind his back. His situation is made harder still by the unknown nature of his mother’s illness and the trouble he as accepting that he no one knows whether she will ultimately get better.

Yet these aspects are furnished with rich fantasy sequences. The chapters that Billy spends underwater with the mackerel are vividly surreal, yet help to add depth to the story. While these seem to carry sinister implications in the second half of the novel, they are ultimately never fully explained. It’s left up to the reader to decide if the novel is fantasy, if it all occurs within Billy’s mind, or a little of both.

The tone of the novel also may not be quite what you’d expect. From the blurb of the novel, I got the impression that the story was going to be more humorous than it ultimately was. It’s more a novel about depression. While Billy never puts a label on his feelings, it’s clear to the reader how he’s gradually becoming dragged down, suffering in silence while his family never notice the affect that things are having on him. There is no one thing in the novel that causes Billy’s depression but it’s more a constant string of bad things, piling upon him slowly over time until he ultimately even stops being able to retreat into his imagination.

I won’t say anything more here for fear of spoiling the novel for you, but I will just say that you need to read through this novel to get to its climax. The book was easy to read but it did tug at my heartstrings throughout. However, its message is ultimately uplifting. Billy does grow from his experiences in the novel, finding the positive things to cling to in order to keep himself from drowning. The book ended the best way that it could do, allowing Billy to view his situation in a different light and seem optimistic about the future.

More than anything, Fish Boy is a character study and it does this superbly. The whole cast of the novel are brilliantly fleshed out. The only major female character in the novel is Billy’s Mum, and I love how Daykin treats her illness. The treatment of chronic illness in the story is particularly effective and I love the subtle way that this is shown in the story. Billy’s Mum tries to remain positive about her prognosis (especially in front of Billy), but her pain and fear occasionally slip through the cracks. The scene where she accepts that she needs to use a wheelchair is heart-breaking.

There is also a lot of focus given to the relationships between the male characters. This is fantastic, as it’s not something you see a lot of in novels. We see a lot of snapshots of the way Billy bonds with both his father and Patrick, all portrayed sensitively and without the bravado that you often see in the fictional male relationships. Billy and his dad do crafts together and make puns about baked beans, while Patrick grows occasionally frustrated at his friend’s unwillingness to talk about his feelings.

And then there’s David Attenborough, Billy’s surprising choice of imaginary friend. While I had heard that Sir David appeared in this novel, I wasn’t expecting quite how he was going to be used. He’s not really a traditional imaginary friend but instead provides an inner voice for David, making the sense of the world around him as though it was a nature documentary (such as discussing wolf spider mating habits as Billy catches sight of the girl he has a crush on). This just added so much charm to the story as it was such a unique and memorable idea.

So, all in all, I was blow away by this novel. It’s given me a lot of food for thought and was a great first read for the New Year. I was totally invested in Billy’s story from start to finish and I’m now really excited to see what Daykin will write next.

Fish Boy is due for release on the 28th February and is currently available to pre-order from Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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