Books about religion don’t tend to be ones I rush out and read, and I tell myself I don’t like dystopian fiction (when actually I think I do, which is both odd and silly) so under normal circumstances I don’t know if Naomi Wood’s debut novel ‘The Godless Boys’ would have been on my radar. However she was one of the authors that myself and Novel Insights saw speak at the publisher Picador’s where they were showcasing some of their novelists and two things stood out for me about this book. Firstly the excerpt that Naomi read (which I have now discovered was the opening, see it stuck in my head all those months that I remembered it) was vividly written and secondly, and this may seem like a strange reason, the book was set off the coast of Newcastle. The city I lived in as a young child, indeed me and Novel Insights became friends their aged 3, and a city that never gets written about. So when the opportunity for a copy came up early in the year I snatched it, and I am really glad I did as ‘The Godless Boys’ is really rather good.
Naomi Wood’s England in 1986 is one of some turmoil. The church has taken over the country and atheists have been sent to live on The Island somewhere off the coast of Newcastle. Here a group of boys known as the Malades, and run by Nathaniel, who spy on any possible Gots (those who once believed and might be trying to again) and control them, generally with fear and menace. One such woman under observation, which basically is malicious spying, is Eliza Michalka. One night those on The Island are joined by Sarah Wickes, who smuggles (I assumed she did, she may have just hopped on) herself onto a boat in search of her mother who she has been told ran off with another man and abandoned her. However once Sarah arrives on The Island she begins to learn that what she has been told about her mother is not the truth. She must also get used to the island and its inhabitants who may not be so welcoming to someone from the mainland.
I think to label this book ‘a dystopian novel about religion’ is really rather lazy. Yes the driving force behind the novel, it is after all why Sarah’s mother is on The Island along with all the atheists, is religion and it bubbles away behind every chapter and indeed motivation of the main characters. This is also a book about people and I think the three characters, even if I didn’t like Nathaniel really, were all very well drawn and really gave the book a life and breath on top of the stormy island atmosphere. Its interesting though that while I think we are meant to follow Sarah and her story, which was very good and Sarah is a marvellous gutsy character, I was captivated far more by Eliza and her tale.
In fact I would go as far as to say she could be one of my favourite characters that I have come across recently. I even wondered if maybe Wood had a special place in her heart as she seemed the most vivid and also the most quirky. She is a woman who finds herself combined her days as part time prostitute at The Grand and also as the local undertaker. She is also madly in love with Arthur, who of course she will never tell. All this and her quirks, like writing words on her forehead under her fringe to boost her confidence or say what she really felt, I absolutely loved. In fact I could have read an entire book devoted just to Eliza.
“On her brow that evening, Eliza penned the word Courage, close to her hairline, underneath her fringe, to encourage her to talk to him. She had made a habit of this since starting at the Grand (that June, and so unwillingly!), pulling up her fringe and penning little messages of hope – or self pity – on her brow. One word, or two, like Courage, or maybe Resilience, or maybe Take Heart!, and she’d go round the Island with her blonde lock of hair covering the words, murmuring the message in her head, hoping for inspiration.
But tonight! What a coward she was. Courage! Pathetic. She had no courage. She felt like that fish Arthur had shorn of all its scales; dull, and missing its brilliance.”
I have heard comparisons to Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ being bandied about by people in context with Naomi Wood’s debut. I have to say that the only similarity I can see with them is that they portray a different ‘dystopian’ view of England in the 1980’s. There was something of Graham Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock’ about this weirdly, great writing of conflict by the stormy seas maybe? I have also heard comparison to ‘A Clockwork Orange’, but I haven’t read that so I can’t say. Yet I think these comparisons might do a disservice to what is a very good debut novel, as one is the authors sixth or seventh book and the other is a cult classic. It seems unfair then to compare, unless it’s to say that Naomi Woods has written a debut that shows she is going to be an author to watch in the future, that I would fully concur with.
‘The Godless Boys’ is a very good novel, regardless of it being a debut or not, it’s a book with people’s stories at its heart and how the environment they are in affects them. It is a book based on a long literary heritage of which there are shades, without ever being a copy or retelling of these tales. It’s a book that impresses overall as a debut and one which regardless of the ‘religion’ subject surrounding it, which makes for an interesting read, should be read for its characters and its story. Those are the sort of books which say so much and make you want to read one. I look forward to the next novel from Naomi Woods (which is apparently about Ernest Hemingway and his wives) with great interest. To coin that cliché, she is certainly one to watch. 8.5/10
This book was kindly sent from the publishers.
Has anyone else read ‘The Godless Boys’? If not do so, its recommended reading. It’s made me go off and want to read ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess and also ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding (the Malades made me think of that book, again one I haven’t read but have heard lots about), can you recommend any of those?