Maggot Moon, Sally Gardner
There have only ever been two books that I’ve read in an afternoon. The first was Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee. The second happened yesterday – the whirl of language-bending, hope-inspiring, gut-crunching pages that make up Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner.
Published by Hot Key Books, hardback, £10.99
Standish Treadwell is a hero of fantastic name and unlucky fortune. He lives with his Gramps in Zone Seven in an unnamed dystopian regime (although it is frequently called the Motherland by its inhabitants) where the streets are policed and people go missing every now and then. Standish, at the age of fifteen, is a dyslexic and possibly autistic boy who can’t spell but is adept at deciphering foreign languages by the sound of them. His school is full of bullies both teenage and, terrifyingly, adult; his home is sometimes cold and devoid of food.
Along comes Hector and his parents, who turn out to be dangerously linked to the moon landing the country is building up to. Add to that the secret in Gramps’s shed and the ever-tightening ring of surveillance and you get a magnificent piece of work. It starts off as what you think is a familiar schoolboy coming-of-age novel. It quickly turns into a pitch-perfect mix of genres that leaves your mind turning over the events.
Gardner adroitly mixes and plays with her turns of phrase, demonstrating enviable skill. She does this both in her own right as an author (“this hat was knife sharp with a brim that could slice a lie in half” is one example of her wonderful craftmanship) and as a method of communicating Standish’s dyslexia (at one point he talks about meat being “screwered”).
Standish and Gramps, and indeed the rest of the characters, are presented so realistically that you form genuine feelings towards each one. I believe the reason the book works so well is because it puts real characters in trying situations and allows them to behave exactly as they would. You feel that much more sickened by what occurs because of that.
Reading through, I couldn’t help but be reminded of other books and genres. This is by no means a bad thing. Gardner’s story has immediately found a home on the literary scale. At the same time, it hones in on the tropes you know and gives them a bitter twist. The best way to describe Maggot Moon is like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas meets Goodnight Mr. Tom meets A Clockwork Orange.
For adult and teenage readers, Maggot Moon is a rare gem: a brilliant read that feels realistic in its character portrayal and dialogue, while communicating without ceremony the raw cruelty of dictatorships. I hope this book moves into modern classic status. It deserves it, and it deserves to be read.