Monday, 22 August 2011
Vibrant Voice: Review of Six Days by Philip Webb
As a creative writing teacher I'm so often asked about the secrets of constructing the perfect plot: it's a core area of fiction writing and it's an aspect that new writers (and experienced ones!) find daunting. However, another crucial area when it comes to creating reader-involvement is the use of voice. If you get this right, the reader is fascinated and feels an emotional connection with the story. Voice can replace ten pages-worth of external description of a character: it takes you straight into the character's mind, attitudes and soul. It's about immediacy and intimacy, it's about contact.
It's interesting, then that my two most recent reads have worked for me by just that: a convincing, engaging, often quirky use of voice. (They're also good on plot too, by the way!) The first is Florence and Giles, by John Harding - and I'll be saying more about this book very soon as John will be guest-posting on Literascribe. The second is Six Days by Philip Webb, which I won in a prize draw run by those lovely people at Chicken House Publishing. So thanks, Chicken House, for a great reading experience!
Six Days is a YA fantasy set in a dystopian future: the heroine, Cass Westerby (described by one of the other characters as 'Mad, brave, headstrong'), lives in a post-apocalyptic London, a London being torn down and chewed up, bit by bit, by 'scavs' - scavengers and their crushing machines, frantically searching for a lost artefact with amazing powers (and you always need an artefact in a sci-fi story ...). I found the descriptions of a London slowly vanishing, building by building, landmark by landmark, into the jaws of industrial destruction, very moving, very graphic. Next time you're near the Houses of Parliament, you'll value them more, I assure you. As buildings, anyway.
The scavs are searching for the artefact while under the control of the Vlads, their Russian masters. Cass has become inured to their bleak existence and has a can-do pragmatic approach to life: no point repining, just get on with things. Her brother Wilbur, though, is different: he's a dreamer and he is searching for his own clues as to the artefact's location. Cass feels a mixture of tenderness and exasperation towards him, all through the novel, and that impatience with a sibling, mixed with total loyalty, is one of the convincing aspects of the characterisation.
Well, whaddya know, Wilbur's on the right track: they meet some strangers and join up with them on a quest which has all the usual selling-points, not least the ticking-clock aspect. Yes, it's called Six Days for a reason. The story broadens out historically and cosmically and those days start passing more and more quickly - can Cass and Wilbur save the world?
I thought the book was very well-constructed and its tone meshed poignancy and humour effectively. There were moments of real beauty and of grotesque horror. Philip Webb comes up with some original variations on familiar riffs from science fiction and the plot was fast-paced and gripping - I also felt he left the way clear for a sequel and I really think that would work.
But I started this review with the idea of voice - and it was that more than anything that brought Cass to life for me. She speaks directly to us in an impatient teenage semi-Cockneyese (ain't, gunk, gob, pigging, gaff, bonce, flippin', zit, gut rot), full of physical texture, slang and some swearing, her wise-cracking asides and exclamations used as a reinforcement of her own courage. The slang is very contemporary and there were occasions where, given the fluidity of street-language, I wondered if the notion that it would continue so far in the future was altogether convincing. Ultimately, though, I could hear her, I could believe in her: the carapace of cynical bravery, the exasperated love for her brother - they were all there from page 1. She blusters and threatens but by page 14 she's risking her life for Wilbur. When she rescues him and he bursts into tears, she says, 'And I don't know whether to shake him to death or hug him.' I think we all, parents or siblings, have been there! (Well, not clambering about on the face of Big Ben, but grabbing your kid as they dart out onto the road - that kind of thing.)
The book has wit, pace and pathos - I recommend it. It will make you chuckle and it will make you cheer: go Cass!