Nowhere quite like it

9th December 2005 at 00:00
CLAY. By David Almond. Hodder. pound;10.99

ELSEWHERE. By Gabrielle Zevin. Bloomsbury. pound;12.99

Geraldine Brennan finds that life-determining moments can be explored in this life or the next

Clay returns to the territory of Kit's Wilderness, David Almond's gripping second novel and the Carnegie Medal that got away. In the earlier book, Tyneside children are lured by the local wild boy into a terrifying dare game in which they encounter the ghosts of their ancestors, killed as children in a mining disaster. Like the tale of Kit and the outlaw John Askew, Clay pits apparent innocence against life knowledge in a strong storyline.

In the new novel, set in the familiar landscape of the author's childhood home, young Davie's universe is shaken when the knowing and troubled Stephen claims him as a kindred spirit. In a nod to the golem legend of Prague, Stephen creates a clay giant to defend Davie's gang, with harrowing consequences.

Underpinning the dramatic adventure story of adolescents' after-hours secret lives are powerful themes of loss of faith, the nature of good and evil and the source of creative genius which will attract more introspective readers. There are echoes of Anne Fine's The Tulip Touch in the presentation of a charismatic and challenging character through the eyes of a wary but intrigued narrator, and the way in which the motives of both central characters shift under scrutiny.

Stephen is a compelling creation: the grandson of a travelling hypnotist, he has been expelled from a seminary for dabbling in the occult and has come to live with his devout Catholic aunt in a community where the state of everyone's souls is public knowledge and the parish priest doubles as the social worker.

Davie encounters Stephen at a point when his own loving family feels claustrophobic, girls suddenly seem more interesting than gang warfare and his public role as star altar boy is increasingly distant from what's going on in his head.

Davie finds unexpected comfort in Clay, the creature his imagination helps create. The moving night-time scene in which he takes Clay on a tour of his home town has a flavour both of Davie saying goodbye to his youth and of Almond bidding a loving farewell to such fruitful literary stamping ground.

The portrayal of the Catholic church's attitudes reveals that the book is set in a past age. It is hoped that today the priest would not brush aside so swiftly Davie's genuine concerns about heaven, hell and sin.

Stephen would be more likely to be referred to a behaviour support unit with a good art department and a counsellor than be recommended as a candidate for the priesthood. Yet the power relationship at the centre of the story and the questions it poses are eternal.

Gabrielle Zevin's novel, Elsewhere, suggests that eternity might not last as long as we think: in her comforting view of death and loss, the dead age backwards until they are returned to Earth as babies.

For those of us still mourning the passing of Six Feet Under, it's a relief that Zevin's interim afterlife community called Elsewhere is rather like the glimpse of Heaven that the deceased Mr Fisher Senior shows us at the end of Series Three. To Liz, killed in a hit-and-run accident just before her 16th birthday, HeavenElsewhere feels much like home (a small town in middle America with an almost entirely white population; it's a shame that the only black character in this afterlife is there because of a violent crime), except that everything she knows and loves is missing.

In Elsewhere people are basically good, but learn to be better through doing the work that's best suited to them, which might not be what they were famous for in life. Liz's skill at communicating with dogs, especially distressed dead ones, helps her recover from her grief and frustration at all she has lost.

Elsewhere is an engaging story which will fuel young readers' consideration of profound ideas about life and death. It suggests what some might already suspect: that the dead grieve as long as the living, that some of the living feel that the dead are still present, and that putting too much faith in the afterlife (in what it can deliver rather than whether it exists or not) can lead to disappointment. David Almond's Davie, who enjoys a good funeral (for the tips) would have liked it.

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