When I was at Booktopia last year one of the books almost everyone kept raving about was Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. They were all saying that it was their books of the year. As the synopsis they gave me was that it was about ‘the importance of love while giant horny mutant grasshoppers take over the world’ I thought they were all mad. Well guess what? I must also be mad because one of my books of the year is Grasshopper Jungle, and it is about the importance (and confusion) of love whilst giant horny mutant grasshoppers take over the world. Yes, first it was bees and now it is grasshoppers, insects in fiction are clearly my thing.
Austin Szerba is trying to work the world out. He is trying to work school out, he is trying to work his family out, he is trying to work his friendships out and if he loves his best girl or boy friend the most, plus he is trying to work out what the point of everything is and how it all interconnects both in Ealing, Iowa, and outside it in the great beyond. You know, all the stuff you spend hours and hours pondering over when you’re a teenager and start to freak out about. Only soon, after an incident he is involved with, Austin and his best mate Robby unleash something which gives them something to worry even more about; they unleash a hidden capsule of the strain plague 412E, which can turn people into giant horny mutant grasshoppers who just want to eat, mate and take over the world. This is far more threatening and concerning than his worries about his own sexuality and who he loves surely?
At that moment, Grant Wallace fell down in his bathroom while taking a piss. Grant hit his head on the rim of his toilet. It was not a Nightingale. Grant Wallace’s head broke open. It didn’t matter. Grant was hatching. The bug that came out of Grant was young and powerful. He was hungry and also very horny. He needed to eat, he needed to find Eileen Pope. He could smell and hear Eileen Pope, even though she was four miles away from the Wallace home.
I have to admit that from the start of the novel I was sceptical to say the least. How on earth was a book about mutant grasshoppers a) going to interest me b) make me give a monkeys c) leave any lasting impressions on me? Well, blow me down because it did all three. From the start of the book I was pretty intrigued by both Austin as a character and also as a storyteller. Before all the big (six foot tall, green armoured) drama starts, we get into the mind of a boy whose mind is all over the shop. He is a mass of hormones and questions. He thinks about sex all the time, both with his girlfriend Shann and openly gay best mate Robby – a friendship which also gets him constantly bullied He also manages, well sometimes between sex and more sex, to think about so much else including history (personal and world), the power of language, books, philosophy, science and human nature vs. animal (or insect) instinct. I instantly felt for him and was engaged by him.
So I was already intrigued before the green monsters of menace arrived onto the scene, then I became hooked. I know, me who doesn’t really read science fiction or fantasy – utterly gripped. Smith writes with a thrillingly gritty and gross style that appeals to the part of me that is still in my teens and likes to spend stupid amounts of money on Jelly Belly’s just because he can. I loved the gross descriptions of how the grasshoppers are born and how they then go on and rampage, killing and mating left, right and centre. You feel like you are in an utterly bizarre yet totally brilliant movie frankly, and you don’t want it to end.
Pastor Roland Duff continued, ‘Masturbation can also turn boys into homosexuals.’
When he said homosexuals, he waved his hands emphatically like he was shaping a big blob of dough into a homosexual so I could see what he was talking about.
That frightened me, and made me feel ashamed and confused.
Then he called my mother into the office and talked to her about masturbation too.
Up until that day, I was certain my mother didn’t know there was such a thing as masturbation.
Before you all start thinking that this novel is just a huge crazy romp, which for the most part it is an unashamedly so, there are some really interesting and much deeper things going on beneath the surface of the best monster movie we have yet (though apparently soon) to have watched. One of the things that Smith looks at, through the eyes of Austin, is how we need to find our place within the world and also connect with it. No matter who we are we have spent, and occasionally still spend, hours and hours mulling about this.
There is the sexuality theme, which is done brilliantly – I can’t imagine people reading it and thinking ‘eww that’s gay’, even though it sort of is – and is actually more about love defying labels or not being labelled at all (rightly so). It also looks at how hard is it to talk about, ask about and (with society and schooling being the way it can be) even think about. There is also the theme of longing for a connection with what has gone before us so we feel part of society and the bigger picture and also so that we can conquer the future, whatever awaits us. Though hopefully for most of us it won’t include having to try and save the world from a giant insect riddled from of Armageddon.
What I also really liked about it was that at no point did I feel patronised and nor did I feel that the young adult market, for which it is primarily aimed, would feel this way either. Smith writes Austin’s voice with authenticity and in a quick, speedy, frank manner which engages, entertains and makes the reader think as they read on. It is also one of those brilliant books which is bound to send it’s reader, again as it has done me, to want to go off and read lots and lots more books, starting with the ones it features. I have already bought Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and will be reading that in due course.
As I said earlier Grasshopper Jungle is going to be one of my books of the year without a shadow of a doubt. It has it all; thrills, thoughts, death, destruction, emotion and some very, very funny moments with some very moving ones. I also think it could make a huge amount of teenagers feel a lot better about some of the questions that are going through their heads; that it is ok to be gay, straight or whatever. It does all of that without ever preaching or persecuting whilst also being a whole load of fun. It’s a book that will educate and entertain adults and young adults alike.
Who else has read Grasshopper Jungle and what did you make of it? Have you read any of Andrew Smith’s other novels? I have The Alex Crow on the shelves and will be reading that after I get to The Chocolate Wars. As always, I would love any other recommendations of some corking, entertaining and enlightening YA novels (I will be recommending Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours to you all soon) that you have read and really rate.