Review of the Day: Clay
I’ve read enough David Almond books by now to know that when you pick a story of his up, you have no idea what’s in store for you. You could meet a man with the wings of a bird or a fellow obsessed with death and dark coal-lined caves. You even could stumble into a fire-eater at the cusp of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And now you could create life out of dull dead clay. Almond’s newest book stands firmly as a teen novel, but with more darkness, doubt, and terror than he’s ever attempted in his previous works. It seems as though Almond is going for something bigger and grander than he’s ever done before. The result is a book, beautiful and horrendous in turns, that demands you read it through to its conclusion.
Davie’s life isn’t odd at the start. Living in a northern English town, he's a young teen who works as an alter boy with his friend Geordie and has a longstanding, if half-hearted, feud with the local Protestants. Then Stephen Rose comes to town. He doesn’t look like much, but the rumors start flying about him pretty fast. He was training to be a priest and then quit. No... wait... he was teaching the other students black magic and then got kicked out. Or maybe he’s just a normal kid who’s father died and who’s mother went insane on him. Davie reluctantly befriends Stephen, then slowly gets sucked into the boy’s sad strange world. Stephen's an artist who crafts remarkably realistic figures out of clay. Now he has a project in mind for which he needs Davie. It's a project worthy of Frankenstein himself. The creation of life out of nothing.
I finished, “Clay”, and came to a single unavoidable conclusion: This is an ideal title for book discussions. You could spend hours on end discussing whether or not Davie and Stephen actually brought anything to life, or if it was all a bit of hypnotism on Stephen Rose’s part. I suppose you could definitely try to figure out whether or not Stephen “wins” in the end. I won’t say anything about the conclusion of the book here, except to say that it leaves itself wide open for massive speculation. The characters here are so well crafted and the setting so realistic (even familiar, to some extent, if you’ve ever read any other rural British books of Almond) that you get sucked entirely into Davie’s odd dilemma. Not only is he at that odd age where he’s neither boy nor man, but his relationship with Stephen is a dark disturbing thing. There’s cruelty there and in Stephen we see a whole host of vices indulged. And when it comes to villains, Stephen Rose may well be the best one I’ve read in a long time. Almond even manages to make our narrator, Davie, into a kind of wonderful everyboy. He’s sweet and a prankster and prior to meeting Stephen the greatest sin he’s ever committed was calling someone “fishface”.
I suppose it’s kind of interesting that in spite of the fact that for most of this book Almond’s characters are creating an entirely clay man, there’s never even a breath of a reference to the Golem of Jewish lore. It makes sense that the characters wouldn’t know anything of that kind of creature, but Almond is invoking the same kind of creature without so much as an allusion. No word is on the creature’s forehead, after all. There are plenty of references to having the clay man destroy the enemies of Stephen and Davie, of course. But that’s about it.
What you basically have here is a psychological thriller. There’s death, yes. And darkness and pain and the overwhelming fear that the hero may be going mad. This is a book for those readers who could understand where Alfred Hitchcock was coming from. If you’ve a kid who isn’t afraid to touch on some of the creepier aspects of friendship and trust, hand it over. Remarkable, readable, and frightening all at once. A keeper.