‘Checkmate’, Malorie Blackman
When I have to fly somewhere, I like to take a single book with me which I know will last me more or less exactly the duration of the journey to my first destination: the walk to the train station, the train ride to whichever London or surrounding airport had the cheapest online fare, the two hours before check-in, the length of the flight, (minus time for a good movie or, on the occasions I’m unlucky enough to be on on one of those thankfully rarer and rarer planes without a decent, setback mounted entertainment systems, an episode or two of a good show on my iPad…this flight, West Wing, season 3, in case you were wondering), and the train/bus/taxi/tuktuk ride to wherever i am going. It gives me a sense of accomplishment, driving somewhere knowing I’ve finished an entire book, (possibly at the expense of some scenery and interaction with locals, sadly), and a feeling of pride at getting the calculations right, not leaving myself with nothing to read for an hour or with too much of a book to polish off. Starting a new page in a new place, literally.
It was therefore a stroke of luck from the Book Gods that, the week before departing for my four week stay in israel, I stumbled upon the last in a trilogy of ‘Young Adult’ books I’d been reading this year whose 500 hard-backed pages I estimated at being perfect for the purpose, (and being in hardback, possibly able to garner me a few extra shekels in exchange at a Tel Aviv book stand).
I had been a fan of young adult books back when I was, brace yourselves, a Young Adult, (a time when i don’t think that was even a recognised literary label), but it seems recently the boundaries have blurred thanks largely to the crossover power of Harry and co. I read and enjoyed the sex-free secondary-school serialized septet as much as the next overgrown teenager, (less as the series progressed, admittedly, as the focus spread from amusing, self-contained, slightly formulaic plots to overblown, overly-metaphorical, slightly rambling symbols of Growing Up), and the explosion of popularity and promotion in this section of the literary market had pointed me to other similar, dare I say better examples of the genre, including: Philip Pullman‘s stunning His Dark Materials trilogy, (criminally misrepresented by the highly average movie adaption which seems destined to remain 67% unfinished), Philip Ness‘s Chaos Walking tales, (yet to be finished, and therefore soon to be reviewed), and the Northern grit and beauty of David Almond, especially the gorgeous Skellig, (pointed my way, as so many printed gems have been over the years, by Nick Hornby in his monthly Believer magazine article on what he is (and, ipso fact, by definition, you and i should be) reading).
I began the Noughts and Crosses trilogy after a recommendation from the ever reliable A.Friend, and the abundance of their availability in charity shops across the land made them easily accessible. The first was enjoyable, the second darker, and the third more of the same. The concept was simple but intriguing: a world where blacks are a ruling minority, looking down on and oppressing the lighter-skinned, ‘crosses’ and ‘noughts’ respectively. Not so subtle, but for young readers a chance to consider the arbitrary nature of racism and segregation.
This final installment stretches a little too far plot-wise, with some gaping plot holes, (a 13 year-old who can’t keep a secret for thirty seconds on one page being expected to keep the biggest one of her life for five years the next page?), with a hurried ending, but it continues to be as theme-packed as its two previous incarnations: the reader is asked to consider not just a world filled with racism and segregation, but also the limits of freedom-fighting and its boundary with terrorism, cancer, alcoholism, emotional manipulation and the role of education, the latter a reoccurring theme through different protagonists throughout the series.
The continued technique of chapters alternating between the viewpoints of two different, usually antithetical characters allows the wonderfully named Blackman to play with language when reporting through the eyes of her youngest characters, (“Nana Jasmine called it her drawing room, which made it sound like it should’ve been more fun than it was…”), but I found myself wondering if i was out of touch with The Kids of today or she was: do 13 year-olds really go out to drink coffees to chat, or have dinner dates? I also cringed at every chance taken to include poetry or the creation of emotionally raw song lyrics, (far too often for my liking), but then again, I’m not a teenage girl, (some of you reading may be shocked to hear).
One extract appealed to me in particular, and earned itself a tiny post-it note, calling me back to it when I began writing this blog entry:
“A recent friend of mine I met in hospital buys paperbacks and tears out each page as he finishes reading it, so that when he next opens the book it’ll always be on the right page. Seems to me my life is a lot like that…”
Not just a beautiful metaphor for a life lived, (“…now my book has so few pages ahead and a yawning gap behind…”), but a shocking idea to be included within printed pages, almost an incitement to literary euthanasia, shocking to someone like me who reveres books so much I can’t even write in text books in pen, who uses book-covers to keep his paperback pages pristine, who would rather fold pocket aces than fold the corners of a page.
Stay tuned for what else I read when I wasn’t rating each and every hummus outlet in Tel Aviv, finding out just how much energy pre-teen cousins can have at any time of the night or day, or marveling at how little it takes for an Israeli driver to lean on their horn…