October 08, 2015
(+++) LEVELS OF LOVE
A Song for Ella Grey. By David Almond. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
Love Is Everywhere. By Jim Benton. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.
Ever since Skellig (1998), his expansion and reinterpretation of Gabriel García Márquez’ short story, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, David Almond has reveled in a kind of magical realism directed not at adults in the García Márquez manner but at younger readers. A Song for Ella Grey is his latest foray into this field, combining the tropes of modern teen romance with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to produce a book that aims for a conflation that does not quite come off. Almond creates a narrator named Claire Wilkinson to tell the story of the mysterious and musically inspired Orpheus and his intense and ultimately doomed relationship with Ella. Claire’s essentially matter-of-fact voice helps ground the story until the crucial descent to the ill-defined land of Death, where Orpheus rather awkwardly takes over the narrative (since Almond does not push the myth so far as to have Claire accompany him). Orpheus’ musical winning of the right to bring Ella back to the land of the living, his ultimate failure, and his eventual death and dismemberment, are all here, all sprinkled with heaping helpings of teen angst and the frequent use of the mild curse word “bliddy” (a British dialect variation of “bloody,” itself not much of a curse on the western side of the pond). “How did all this happen to us, Claire?” a minor character, Bianca Finch, asks near the end. “We’re just kids. We’re just us.” But Almond spends the entire book suggesting that the protagonists and their friends are not “just” anything, but are actors in an age-old drama of life, death and resurrection that, as the book’s ending indicates, is likely to be repeated yet again in some other time, some other venue. Almond makes a great deal out of the importance of the old myths, transformed though they be, in modern times, as when Bianca – ultimately a more interesting character than Ella, whose role is merely to fall hopelessly in love and then die – erupts with frustration and anger in class: “‘Paradise Lost!’ Bianca went on. ‘Let’s all go abliddy Maying, and my ending is despair and blablablablablablabla. We’ve got our lives to live. We’re young!’” The shouting match continues, but the point is made: the characters in A Song for Ella Grey are the young people of today, but that is not all they are, for they are also characters in a kind of world-without-end drama that calls on, and calls up, the ghosts of ancient times. And those ghosts – made manifest in modern guise – in turn call up other ghosts, such as the one that Ella becomes. All this is convoluted and frequently over-clever, as in the section in the realm of Death, presented on black pages with white lettering as a visual reversal of the rest of the book. Certainly there are many affecting moments in A Song for Ella Grey, but they are of the “awwwww” type typical in contemporary tales of doomed teenage lovers, not possessing the intended resonance of the old tale of Orpheus, a story whose updating and adaptation here seems forced and too self-enamored to be fully effective. Almond writes as well here as always, but he is so determined to impress on readers how important and significant the story is that he keeps showing his manipulative authorial hand as the events unfold. The result is that, ultimately, Orpheus and Ella Grey have much less substantiality here than Orpheus and Eurydice do in the tale on which this one is based.
Almond’s highly serious book is very much in character for him, but a much lighter treatment of love – one suitable for gift-giving or for sharing with young children – is somewhat out of character for Jim Benton, an author whose specialty is a wry, funny, slightly snide look at positive emotions (such as joy in the Happy Bunny books). Benton wants to be more positive in Love Is Everywhere, and he deserves some credit for trying, but positivity and Benton do not go particularly well together. This is an oversize board book in which Love is seen in the form of a big pink heart with, at times, wide-open eyes, arms and hands, or teeth. The heart peeks out here and there in both rain and shine (turning yellow to represent the bright sun), and Benton tries hard – a little too hard – to keep the short poetry in the book as amusing as the words in his more-sarcastic productions: “You might not always see my love, but it goes everywhere./ Even if you go out walking in your underwear!” (The illustration here has a young child walking down the street in briefs while the pink heart, on the sidewalk behind him, is giggling.) The problem here is that the words tend to come across as somewhat forced: Benton does not do straightforward cuteness very well. For instance: “Underneath a turtle could be where [love] might hide./ Or among some pink flamingos (providing you’re outside).” The most Benton-ish scene here has a sleeping girl snoring “louder than a bear,” while her toys laugh or cover their ears, the moon outside the window looks bemused, and the “love heart” is thoroughly enjoying itself. But really, Benton does not do sweetness very effectively, and the final two-page spread – showing bunnies, snakes, flowers, trees, clouds even hills smiling and/or cuddling – is just asking for some of the more-usual Benton sarcasm. So give Benton credit for trying to change his image a bit in Love Is Everywhere, but do not look here for his trademark silliness or his usual willingness to confront the sappy and overdone rather than becoming sappy and overdone himself.