Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks (and indeed last two weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week. This week it is David Whitehouse’s utterly brilliant Mobile Library which is one of those books that charms you so much and whose characters you become so attached to you hug it to you afterwards, like you were ten again.
Picador Books, hardback, 2015, fiction, 384 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered (I am tempted to have this cover made into some kind of tattoo design!)
Bobby Nusku is a twelve year old unhappy in the world that he is living. His mother has disappeared, he has tried to catalogue as much of her life as he can in a box of artefacts he keeps hidden, his father has met a new woman and both of them either spend the time ignoring Bobby, telling him off or being drunk. If that wasn’t bad enough his best friend, and protector from school bullies, Sunny has had to move away after a failed attempt to turn himself into the first human-cyborg. After witnessing an act of bullying on someone else, Rosa, he tries to pay for his cowardice by befriending her and in doing so comes to meet her mother Vera, and before long they all decide to escape their lives, quite literally, in a mobile library.
In case you are thinking ‘oh Simon, you rotten spoil sport, you have given everything away’ I actually haven’t. Once on the road and off on the adventures of their lives so far, for good and bad reasons, much happens and they meet many people and get into various scrapes along the way. Also, Mobile Library actually begins somewhere towards its end and so we back pedal and then head towards a literal cliff-hanger we know is coming. Though we don’t know what happens after it, ooh that David Whitehouse is a teaser.
‘Are we in trouble?’ Bobby asked?
‘No,’ Val said, ‘not anymore.’
The white cliffs of southern England spread out beyond them, disappearing where the blues, sea and sky, coalesce. High up in the cab of the mobile library, they could not see the land below them, just the oceans ceaseless loop, as if they were driving an island through the sea to a faraway place. Hemmed by a crescent of police cars to the cliff edge, bulbs flashed, helicopters chopped up the air. When the sirens fell mute, he saw her, exquisite in the dim dashboard light.
I will say no more on the plot bar the fact that it involves camping in woods, creepy old mansions, an escaped convict and an abandoned zoo. The reason I mention all these things is because they were all things I loved in books as ‘a youth’ and of course still do, so there was a lovely nostalgic feeling as I was reading. There is no doubt that this is Whitehouse’s intention as actually the book takes on many tropes of the fairytales (for me the Ladybird Classics) that I would say 90% of us read or had read to us when we were small. Bobby himself, though admittedly without the ugly stepsisters or his parents giving a monkey’s how dirty the house is, is rather a Cinderella figure in some ways, Val his fairy godmother and the Mobile Library his pumpkin… though the story doesn’t follow the path of Cinderella you can see other nods to fairytale as you go, especially towards the very end.
One thing the book doesn’t have is magic, well at least not of the wands, spells, eye of newt or enchanted spinning wheel (or steering wheel, see what I did there – sorry!) kind. There are two other kinds of magic in it, love and friendship. Now any of you who think I have been kidnapped by some hippy commune bear with me. Love is something we cannot explain, there is no science behind it, there is no logic and the same applies to friendship, these invisible bonds tie us together for some unknown rhyme or reason. That is a magic of sorts and we take it far too much for granted which was something I felt strongly after finishing the book.
The theme of friendship also links onto the other major theme of the book which is what makes a family. The stereotypical family of 2.4 children and indeed the ‘nuclear’ family (whatever that meant, it sounds horrid) can no longer be defined so easily. I know this all too well with two half brothers, two half sisters and two step sisters – I know think of the Christmases’! Not only that though more and more people are creating family through friendships, I am Uncle (Sugabear in some cases) to a lot of my friends children because there are certain friends who you feel are more your family than your own family. Whitehouse looks at this through a group of people who couldn’t be more different and yet somehow – no spoilers – become a family of sorts. People who either have difficult or awkward family relationships or feel they have no real family at all.
These days she looked forward to visiting the doctor. As cold as his hands were, small talk was a welcome respite from the otherwise lengthy nothingness. Sometimes she considered faking symptoms, just to feel that rough chill against her body and talk about the changing weather.
Having read Whitehouse’s previous novel Bed, which shamefully I loved but haven’t reviewed, it is interesting to see that his theme of outsiders in society is still there. Interestingly I think Mobile Library is like a polar opposite look at these ‘underdogs’ because whereas in Bed the act of someone going to bed forever is about dropping out of society due to a lack of hope, here we have people desperate for love and belonging. Even when ‘Sometimes,’ she said to nobody in particular, ‘I worry that life is just the journey between toilets.’ there is a glimmer of hope and potential which may be fulfilled at some point. Isn’t that the essence of every great fairytale?
Yes, I am back to fairy tales again. Speaking of which, if you hadn’t guessed yet, Mobile Library is also a book about the power and wonder of books. I need say no more, brilliant…
‘In every book is a clue about life,’ Val said. ‘That’s how stories are connected. You bring them to life when you read them, so the things that happen in them will happen to you.’
‘I don’t think the things that happen in books will happen in my life,’ he said.
‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ she said. ‘You just don’t recognise them yet.’
I loved, and hugged, Mobile Library which is frankly some of the highest praise that I can give it. It is a book that reminds you of the magic of books, friendship, family and love without any magic having actually occurred. It is also an adventure story, possibly the most quintessentially British road trip novel you could encounter. It is also a book that despite being marketed for adults, I think many a ‘youth’ should read as I think it will remind them of the brilliance of reading and the fun it can be, as much as it reminds we adults of all ages, of just the same thing. I’m a massive fan of books, Mobile Library reminded me why whilst making me even more of a fan.
If you would like to hear David talking about Mobile Library in more detail you can hear him chatting with me on Fiction Uncovered FM and he will also be on You Wrote The Book next week, again with me but quite a different chat. Who else has read Mobile Library and what did you think of it? Which other books about books and grown up fairy tales have you loved? I always want more recommendations of those.