Over the next ten weeks I will be reading and reviewing the shortlisted books for the inaugural YA Book Prize. I’m thrilled that the diverse and thriving UK YA scene is being celebrated. I’m also thrilled that children’s books tend to be so much shorter than Serious Adult Literary Fiction.
A Song for Ella Grey is a completely gorgeous book about the divine madness of youth, and the ever-present shadow of death. It is a retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, giving the tragedy a new setting in the form of Almond’s native North of England. Orpheus is a wanderer with a Geordie accent, and is the only main character who doesn’t seem quite to fit in the landscape of modern day England, finding himself a little baffled by everything except for his lyre and his Eurydice.
The other characters are modern day teens. Claire, our narrator, is helplessly in love with her childhood friend, the dreamy Ella. Ella is destined to play the role of Eurydice. She first encounters the love of her short life over the phone; her parents don’t let her go on the Bacchanalian Easter holiday (in Northumberland) during which her friends first encounter Orpheus. So Claire, feeling her beloved friend’s absence, calls Ella, and Orpheus sings to her, and an inevitable chain of events is set in motion.
The prose leans towards poetry, with big, effusive lines that threaten to spill over with their sense of joy and beauty. Fittingly, the novel reads like nothing so much as a song. Even the character’s dialogue is heightened. These teenagers don’t always sound like teenagers, but why would they, in the throes of living out an age-old myth? However, Almond does well at capturing the ephemeral state of adolescence. The group of friends at the centre of the novel – “the hipster lot” – could be any group of young people, intent on grabbing their moments of freedom and using them to make art and noise. “Maybe we were mad that day,” Claire thinks about the day they met Orpheus, but their youth and their love and their art make them mad. Perhaps that’s what brought Orpheus to them: like attracting like.
The stylisation will put some readers off, but it should be clear within a few pages whether this story is for you or not. It’s a beautiful, lyrical book to be carried along by – prepare to be swept up, rather than dazzled.
“I’m happy,” says a character near the end of the book. “Can that be right?” It seems a strange reaction to a tragedy, but every word of A Song for Ella Grey hums with such life, it’s hard not to feel exhilarated by it. Orpheus’ descent into the underworld is made tangible by a sliver of black pages among the white, neatly marking out the only section of the book that doesn’t feel vibrantly, defiantly alive. The contrast is thrown into sharp relief: song and silence, light and dark, life and death.