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book coverA Song for Ella Grey, David Almond
Delacorte Press, October 2015
Reviewed from ARC

Here’s a novel that is exactly what its title indicates it will be: a song for Ella Grey. David Almond’s lyrical novel—his third (!) to come out this year—is about the desperate first love of one’s youth that can inspire for a lifetime. The surprise of this song is that the singer isn’t Orpheus; it’s Claire, Ella’s best friend. It’s about love, obsession, magic, and loss. In a year when Almond already has a six-star novel, it’s not likely that Ella Grey could ever have been more than a dark horse contender unless the critical praise matched or exceeded its predecessor. More than that though, Ella Grey is strange and rare, a book that will leave readers in a daze trying to understand what they’ve just experienced.

The story begins at the end. Ella is gone, Orpheus has already failed to bring her back, and Claire’s telling their story as a way of healing. She knows that their love story has profoundly changed her but she also knows that she needs to let go and move on. Claire’s writing with the perspective that time can bring after loss and Almond balances the mournful tone of present Claire with the emotions and voice of Claire during the events of the story.

Out of necessity she’s bland, only identifiable in relation to Ella and Orpheus. Her intense friendship with Ella has turned into love but she’s lost her as soon as Orpheus appears. Claire’s aimless, unsure of what she wants out of life other than Ella and she’s ultimately powerless. In order to describe how Orpheus traveled to the underworld, she takes on the “mask of Orpheus” so that he can speak through her. The narration transitions easily into the voice of Orpheus because their love for Ella is a shared quality and that makes it believable that Claire would want and need to emulate Orpheus. She’s already a shell that can house another voice. What’s remarkable is that by the end of her story—which is the beginning of the novel—she’s learning to use her own voice while keeping the “mask of Orpheus” with her.

As expected in a David Almond book, the language here is hypnotically beautiful. He evokes specific places with such vivid accuracy that readers might imagine that they’ve actually traveled to a shore in Northern England. Yet when I picture the scenes in my mind, everything has a gauzy haze because it’s all Claire’s recreation, colored by her memory and emotions. Almond plays with rhythm and uses the senses to create sentences that want to be re-read: “She made me aware of my shabbiness, the dirt on my skin, sand in my hair, scent of firesmoke, stale-wine breath.”

There’s also an attention to design here that’s not normally seen outside of graphic novels or illustrated books. The design and layout are integral to the telling of the story. Chapters always begin on the right side of a spread, which adds to the feeling that this is a story deliberately told to you by Claire and sometimes gives the reader a chance to take a breath between chapters. Then there’s the descent to the underworld. The pages in this section are black with white type and the beasts of the underworld speak in an all-caps handwritten font. When they are shouting, the font size increases. When Ella speaks in the underworld, her dialogue is right justified. These choices contribute to the way a reader will experience this novel. The language already puts one in a dream-like state, and these design elements elevate the content to another level.

A single stray item that I’d be remiss to leave unmentioned: the vocabulary used in characters’ conversations about adoption. Any adoptee, myself included, will tell you that the phrase “real parents” is the most common mistake others will make when referring to biological parents. Any person touched by adoption will tell you there’s nothing more galling than the implication that your parents aren’t your “proper” parents; “proper” being another word Almond uses in the novel. Ella was adopted when she was two and dreams about Orpheus singing to her as she’s with her biological parents—Almond suggesting that her connection to Orpheus and her need for a sense of belonging stems from her adoption. This is plausible character development and it’s interesting to see an adopted teen in a novel. In terms of accuracy, people do talk like this and prioritize biological connection in parent-child relationships. Is the use of a microaggression serving a useful and instructive purpose in the novel? Or is it just harmful? I’m not going to hypothesize about word choice; I just want to point it out.

A Song for Ella Grey still has much to discuss despite weak characters and vague themes. In a way, it needs a discussion because it’s so hard to talk about this book in concrete, straightforward terms. It’s truly like stepping into someone else’s memory. I’m not sure that will be enough for the RealCommittee but I’m very interested to hear what the rest of you have to say! Surely this is somebody’s dark horse favorite, right? 


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