Fuse #8

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Review of the Day: The Unvisibles

I hope I'm wrong about this book and that every man, woman, and child in America will know its name in a year or so. My instinct, however, tells me that this will not be the case. A pity.

Be careful what you wish for. When British titles are imported into the United States, they tend to be put through a thorough editing process. Words that may mean one thing in one country may be offensive or completely unintelligible in another. This was the logic behind changing many of the words in the "Harry Potter" books and is a practice that continues without interruption to this day. Or so I thought. Picking up Ian Whybrow's, "The Unvisibles" I was shocked to find that almost nothing in this book was changed when it was brought across the ocean. Not the cover art. Not phrases like, "taking the mick" or words like "gob-smacked". When "Harry Potter" was edited I complained to the high hills. Now it seems as if Holiday House has dared me to stand by my words. They've taken a slight risk in not Americanizing their latest import. A risk I admire and stand conflicted in the face of.

Two boys stand at opposite ends of the personality spectrum. On the one hand you have Oliver Gasper. He's tall and skinny with sticky-out ears and a bright shock of orange hair. Oliver's a troublemaker, a goof-off, and a generally nice but wayward guy. He can't concentrate for more than half a second and you could definitely call him ADD with little argument. On the other hand, there is Nicky Chew. Nicky's carefully cultivated himself to be the most normal kid in the world. Though he always gets all his test answers correct, then makes sure to ascribe incorrect answers once or twice so he won't draw attention to himself. He has normal clothes, normal hair, and you wouldn't look twice at him if he were standing in a line-up. Though both boys live next door to one another, they've never even had a conversation. That is, until Oliver finds the magazine. The magazine that has an article that holds the key to turning yourself invisible. The magazine that is stolen by a nasty colleague of Oliver's father, leaving the boy invisible and without a hope of turning back. Now the boy that no one can see and the boy that no one ever bothers to see will have to team up to get Oliver back to visible health and restore his father's failing business. It's merely all in a day's work for the Unvisibles.

The plot and the writing are wonderful, by the way. Couldn't be sweeter. Now I'm as Anglophilic as the best of them. I love me my Jane Austen and BBC productions. But more than once I, a twenty-eight-year-old woman, found myself having a bit of difficulty parsing some of Whybrow's more creative exhibits. The book is a thick read. Wading through the British aphorisms and turns of phrase, at least at the start, makes for slow going. This partly has to do with Whybrow's fine grasp of British slang. It rolls trippingly off his pen into sentences like, "Nah, he'll just smack you up a bit, show you he's the top man, like". His dialogue is superb. It does, however, require a reader that is willing to mentally translate phrases like, "The normal Friday feeling in the air was tinged with niggle and frustration", over and over again.

But you can't deny the man's wordplay. There's nothing worse that riding the subway reading a children's book and coming to a passage that makes you chortle and snort loudly at rush hour. That was my particular reaction to a scene in which invisible Oliver and embarrassed Nicky eat at a high-end buffet. Nicky has to keep returning to the head waiter for more food. "Having to place himself in the full glare of every other customer's attention in the restaurant while he presented his plate over and over at the counter like some demented Oliver Twist was his idea of hell". I loved that. His characters are believable and awfully realistic. The story is well-plotted and turns out beautifully by the end. There's slapstick but it never comes off as crude or anything but rousingly funny. If Hollywood doesn't buy the rights off of this puppy soon then they are bigger fools than even I had thought.

Sadly, I don't think American kids are going to take much to "The Unvisibles". I can see why Holiday House thought it might make for a really fun and funny addition to our library shelves. And I cheer on heartily any kid who wishes to tackle this story and all the ramifications of invisibility that come with it. But this is definitely not a book for reluctant readers and even hard-core devourers of fiction may find themselves struggling with it from time to time. Definitely worth taking a gander at but not a sure-fire thing.

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