The move from his old house, near school and his best friends, to a new house across town, couldn't have come at a worse time for 10-year-old Michael. His baby sister is sick, perhaps very sick, and he is afraid she might die. The new house itself is musty and creepy; in fact, the previous owner died there alone. But it is to be Michael's home from now on. When he comes across a creature, not quite human and seemingly close to death as well, Michael's world changes and is infused with hope and faith and a sense of wonderment.
Michael's story is told in the award-winning young adult novel SKELLIG by David Almond, which recently has been re-published in a hardcover 10th-anniversary edition.
SKELLIG is a strange and powerful story, and Michael is a reserved and sensitive narrator. As much as he loves playing football with his friends, he is curious about the more delicate aspects of the world around him and acutely aware of the suffering of others. His neighbor in his new house is a girl his age named Mina. Mina is a precocious eccentric, and her obsession with birds coincides with Michael's discovery of the creature, Skellig, living in his garage. Together, Michael and Mina tend the mysterious figure who has a love of Chinese food and beer and claims to be suffering from arthritis. Michael's world and his concern for his sister collide with that of Mina and Skellig, and the results are magical and mystical, optimistic and bizarre, and maybe even miraculous.
Almond explores so many ideas in the book, yet it is a concise and readable tale, mostly due to Michael's matter-of-fact point of view. It is through Mina that readers grasp the scale of Skellig's specialness; he is extraordinary, she says again and again. But what exactly Skellig is is impossible to say for sure. With references to miracles, the presence of his wings and the numerous quotations from William Blake, he is surely an angel. However, Almond is also concerned with evolution and a possible link between humans and birds, birds and dinosaurs, and birds and other ancient creatures. In the end, the book is about finding strength in adversity, friendship in unlikely places, and the importance of kindness and hope. In addition to the overt and subtle religious themes, Almond uses Greek mythology to further the story. Mina's mother uses the myths to entertain and instruct Mina and Michael, and the rebirth of Persephone comes to be an important symbol for Michael as he deals with his sister's illness.
In this new edition Almond writes a short note to share with readers his thoughts about the tale, admitting that for him Mina has always been the most compelling character. Included is a short story about Mina, “A Journey to the Archaeopteryx,” which is set before she meets Michael and just as she is beginning to explore the avian world and the idea of avian evolution. It is a thoughtful story, but almost a too-neat addition to the story of what happens to her and Michael. The ambiguity of the novel itself is part of its beauty and power.
SKELLIG is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking novels for young readers and is well deserved of its accolades. Adults will also be drawn in by the precisely written yet lyrical tale, rife with symbolism, and will find many secrets and mysteries to explore and a number of connections to be made. Emotionally, spiritually and intellectually complex and still delivered in plain language, SKELLIG is a fantastic novel by one of the brightest and most challenging writers of young adult fiction today.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on April 28, 2009
Skellig: 10th-Anniversary Edition