“What’s to be done about the gloom that’s everywhere?” McNulty, the fire-eater, says to 13-year-old Bobby Burns. He’s a small man, his skin scarred and covered with tattoos of women and dragons. He has pointed gold teeth and deeply creased cheeks, and he smells of smoke and sweat. He’s a “devil, a demon, a rascal,” and it turns out that Bobby’s father knew him in Burma during World War II, that “mad mad time before your time, from a time of bloody blasted war” that spawned fakirs, magic men, dervishes and miracle-makers in the markets, roadsides and frontiers of Asia.
And now the world is near disaster again. It’s 1962. Russia has been testing nuclear bombs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis has made fragile everything Bobby and his friends love in little Keely Bay, a coal-mining town in England. What’s to be done when your small part of the world your family and friends and home is endangered? What do you do when your father is sick, perhaps about to die? Almond’s novels have won several major awards including the Whitbread Award for Best Children’s Book and the Smarties Book Prize in England and the Printz Award in the United States for best young adult novel. No writer today writes so poetically, beautifully and philosophically in such simple, elegant prose as David Almond. In this short tale of one moment in one town, Almond writes of friends and community, life and death, evil and resistance to evil.
What’s to be done about war and sickness and evil? “There’s ancient battles to be fought,” says Bobby’s father. “Let’s do it boldly and bravely,” and in the meantime, “Make sure you get your good times in, son. You never know what’s round the corner.” The world may be mysterious and threatening, but Bobby comes to appreciate his place in it. In an evocative passage near the end of the novel, Bobby records the pleasures and things to value in his “tiny corner of the world.” Almond takes on big ideas in little Keely Bay, and readers will be awed by this beautiful story about living in a world where wonders never cease. “Sometimes,” says Ailsa, “the world’s just so amazing.” And so is this novel.