Going for a World Song
YOUNG ADULT/TEEN FICTION: ROBERT DUNBAR has the pick of the latest young-adult novels
WITH THE DEATH, last December, of Russell Hoban, we said farewell to one of the most original voices in contemporary fiction. Whether in his picture books, his children’s novels or his writing for adults, Hoban never failed to challenge his readers with his imaginative narratives or his stylistic inventiveness, even if at times he may have seemed almost wilfully eccentric or obscure. His final picture book, Rosie’s Magic Horse, will be published in the autumn, but in the meantime we have Soonchild (Walker, £9.99), a short novel for young adults that acts as a poignant coda to the body of work that preceded it.
The notion of a coda is appropriate here, not just because this is a novel with its own haunting musicality but also because it takes song and singing as one of its central motifs. Set in the snowy landscapes of the Arctic, and imbued with numerous resonances of indigenous myth and legend, the narrative focuses on the situation confronting a shaman, known as Sixteen-Face John, and his pregnant wife, known as No Problem, when their imminently expected baby makes it clear from her mother’s womb that she will not be leaving there until she hears the “World Songs”.
John’s response is to embark on a hazardous quest to find this elusive music, a quest that takes him on a magical, mystical tour through a land of creatures great and small, of the living and the dead. Fear and darkness are everywhere, waiting to be overcome, in this wonderfully timeless and atmospheric story. Its pencil-sketch illustrations by Alexis Deacon and its extremely high production values make this a book as attractive to look at and handle as it is to read.