In 1998, David Almond published his stunning and strange children's novel, SKELLIG. In 2009, it was re-released in a 10th-anniversary edition that included a short story about one of the three protagonists, Mina. This fascinating character is now the star of her own novel, MY NAME IS MINA, set just before the action in SKELLIG.
Mina McKee spends lots of time in her favorite tree. She watches the sky, the birds, and the comings and goings of her neighbors. She recently left school and now learns at home with her nurturing and understanding mother, who has given her an empty notebook. MY NAME IS MINA is the entries she records in that notebook.
Mina is precocious, creative, slightly obstinate and a bit sad. She revels in nature and loves all flying creatures, especially those like owls and bats that come out at night. She thinks deeply about evolution and change, as well as beauty. She questions authority and the value of traditional education. She is eccentric and delightful, and misses her late father. Her story, in Almond's hands, is not about plot or action, but rather about mood and thought. While time moves forward, this unique novel is about what Mina thinks much more than what she does. What she thinks about, perhaps without realizing it herself, is trying to understand her place in the world. She ponders natural transformation, the meaning of words and the meaning of dreams, the taste of good food, joy and sorrow, friendship, life and death.
After the loss of her father and her inability to succeed at school, Mina is ripe for profound discovery. Her introspection is beautiful and sometimes heart-wrenching. “Look at the world,” she writes, “Smell it, taste it, listen to it, feel it, look at it. Look at it! And I know horrible things happen for no good reason. Why did my dad die? What's the point of famine and fear and darkness and war? I don't know! I'm just a kid! How can I know answers to things like that? But this horrible world is so blooming beautiful and so blooming weird that sometimes I think it'll make me faint!”
For those who have read SKELLIG, the tension in MY NAME IS MINA mounts as she comes closer to her meeting with her new neighbor, Michael. It is with him and the fabulous creature they care for that she will eventually find ease, comfort and unconditional acceptance. It is with Michael that her ability to think creatively and her emotional courage will be appreciated. But in this powerful, lovely and provocative stand-alone novel, Mina shines, even without that resolution. In fact, if you read it anticipating SKELLIG, you risk missing out on some of Mina's more interesting ideas. That being said, it is easy to see how Almond himself set up this book to work with his 1998 novel, and sometimes the themes and ideas are a bit too neatly connected.
Almond's unconventional latest is hard to describe, but it is astonishing in its emotional depth and breathtaking in its sense of wonder. It is philosophic and metaphysical without being preachy or pedantic, and is just a pure pleasure to read.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on October 27, 2011
My Name Is Mina