July 19, 2007


A Swift Pure Cry. By Siobhan Dowd. David Fickling Books. $16.99.

The Whole Sky Full of Stars. By René Saldaña, Jr. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

      The level of teenage angst is typical, but the settings are on the exotic side in these two books – which make good summer reading only if you find tears and worry cathartic. The death of a parent looms large in both novels – of a mother in A Swift Pure Cry, a father in The Whole Sky Full of Stars. But the books are really about teens’ attempts to make something of themselves and their lives after the losses occur.

      A Swift Pure Cry is set in a small town in Ireland, where Shell Talent’s mother dies when Shell is 15. Shell’s father is religious to the point of obsession, but his belief does not keep him from the bottle, and he soon descends into alcoholism and depression. This leaves Shell to care for her younger brother and sister – and to try to handle, on her own, her intense and growing feelings for her childhood friend, Declan. The burgeoning romance comes to an abrupt end when Declan leaves Ireland to try for a better life across the sea, in the United States – after which Shell, her heart already broken, finds out that she is pregnant, with all the fear and ostracism that implies in the southern Irish countryside in the 1980s. First-time novelist Siobhan Dowd lays things on very thickly, indeed: “The thin needle of fear threaded its way deep into the back of her thoughts again, like an earthworm disappearing into the soil.” Dowd twists and turns everything in Shell’s life – the town’s intolerance, her own fears, her need to care for others while being unable to care properly for herself – and does not even leave Shell with the satisfaction of a child to raise. By piling so much heartache upon Shell, Dowd turns realism into melodrama, and the final mildly optimistic portion of the book seems tacked-on and false. The novel does tug at the heartstrings, again and again – Dowd is a good enough writer to do that – but it is all so overdone that it may leave readers, by the end, with a sense of relief that it is finally over.

      The Whole Sky Full of Stars is gritty, too, but it speaks of a different time, different class issues and a different worldview. It starts with a fight – Barry punches his longtime best friend, Alby, after Alby makes a disrespectful comment about Barry’s mother – and fighting, especially its seamier side, is what the book is all about. Barry has the unpolished boxing skills of a natural fighter, and Alby, who has gambling debts and is in deep trouble with some minor-league thugs, sees Barry as a way out of his problems. Barry sees something in his fighting ability, too: he has been drifting since his father’s death, and he needs something on which to focus, and he wants to help both his mother and Alby – although he doesn’t approve of the trouble Alby has gotten himself into. René Saldaña, Jr.’s structure for the book is a little jarring, ratcheting back and forth between Barry and Alby as if their lives are a ping-pong match – until Barry starts fighting, when the focus is strongly on him and his opponents. Non-fans of boxing will not appreciate the realism of the fights, especially the final one of the series, in which Barry and his opponent maul each other. The end of the book returns to the issue of friendship – what it means, what can boost or damage it, and how important it is – and if the life lessons are scarcely new or uniquely presented, they are at least told with enough real-world connection to provide a satisfactory conclusion.

No comments:

Post a Comment