Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardner

Maggot Moon is the story of Standish Treadwell, zone 7 resident and probable orphan.  His parents 'disappeared' months ago, but that makes them as good as dead.  Now now he lives in a tumbledown house in a derelict street with his Gramps.  Brutal, cruel and ruthlessly ambitious, The Motherland, a Nazi-esque totalitarian state has no place for people like Standish, with his odd eyes and his dyslexia.  He is imperfect, something that he is made aware of every day.

Dyslexia is a bit of a structural influence in this novel, as well as a character trait.  Gardner herself is dyslexic, and here has written a novel and a character that proves that the condition makes you anything but stupid.  The fact that people constantly underestimate the illiterate Standish only makes it easier for him to do the right thing and make a difference.  Proof that dyslexia does not stand in the way of making a person remarkable.  The novel's structure, 100 very short (sometimes not even a whole page) chapters make this book a lot more accessible for struggling readers.  The shortness of the chapters and the brutality of the setting and some of the events that Standish witnesses is made all the more shocking by Gardner's beautiful writing.  She obviously has a very special understanding of language.

The story is set in 1956, but the social decay and the neglect make Standish's world feel much more dystopian than alternate history.  We hear about the corruption, institutionalised bullying and espionage that happens as a matter of course at Zone 7 school.  Standish's school experience culminates in an exceptionally violent scene where his psychopathic teacher savagely beats one of his classmates and nobody can do anything about it.  The main story begins shortly after, when new neighbours move into Standish's parents' old house. For the first time, Standish has a friend, Hector, and he and his Gramps are no longer alone. They might have to look over their shoulders wherever they go and whatever they do, but there are now other people in their lives.  When Hector and Standish discover something that they are not supposed to know- something that could possibly topple the Motherland forever, life in Zone 7 gets all the more impossible. It's up to Standish to bring the Motherland's regime to the eyes of the World.

I don't usually quote from books online, but I do record passages that I think are outstanding in my book journal- I feel compelled to share one quote.  Standish describes his relationship with words- though he can't read or write, he has an almost multi-sensory understanding of language and understands even foreign tongues implicitly.  He explains "I collect words - they are sweets in the mouth of sound." Amazing writing.  Such a short sentence, but it's stayed lodged in my head ever since.

I loved Standish's voice in this novel- how he could remain so innocent with such an uncurbed imagination despite the brutality of the world that he lives in and how the goodness and the bravery that he is able to exhibit is never broken by the Motherland's rulers.  The character of Gramps is also beautifully written, quietly enraged at the inhumanity of his world, decent to his core and incredibly resourceful, fixing and re-fixing things that are useful with his big, safe hands that "make whole all that is broken".  I just desperately wanted Gramps to be safe and it's obvious that that's what Standish wants too.

I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but it's a carefully crafted story, very imaginative but disturbing in places.  Maggot Moon is both heartbreaking and uplifting, using the themes of imagination, friendship and bravery to prove to the reader that you do not have to be perceived as remarkable to do remarkable things.

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