A powerful and uplifting début from Mike Revell, Stonebird is a somewhat magical but mostly real-life story narrated by 11 year old Liam. Uprooted from his home and dragged across the country to be near to his ill and fading grandmother, Liam's mum is not coping well with her mother's dementia and the strain drives her to alcohol. Liam finds dealing with his drunk mum tough to handle, and his older sister is of little help. Suddenly rebellious, she's out at all hours with a new boyfriend, breaking rules and ignoring instructions from their mum and seems pretty indifferent to anything going on around her. When Liam starts his new school, he is immediately targeted by bullies. Things aren't going well for him.
Walking his dog one afternoon, Liam comes across an eerie stone gargoyle in an abandoned church. Awed by its size and its ugly but impressive bulk, it reminds him of a gargoyle he read about in his gran's old diary from when she lived in Pre-War Paris- originally adorning Norte Dame cathedral, she christened him Stonebird and believed he offered her protection. Inspired by the connection, he uses this gargoyle as the basis for some stories in class, prompted by his new and lovely teacher. Continuing to find out more about his grandma's younger years, back before she was ill, back before she's even had children, Liam learns about the person stolen from him by dementia, convinced that a devil is inside his gran eating away at everything that ever made her the person she once was.
When Liam starts to see some connection between the Stonebid stories he tells in class and subsequent events, he begins to think that Stonebird might be the answer to all his prayers- getting rid of his tormentors, making his gran better and healing his mum. Liam is about to learn the age old lesson of being careful what he wishes for, and he is going to experience first hand what powerful magic stories can hold.
I liked Liam as a character- he was brave and determined, even if he was a bit naïve (and very understanding of Mark, his main bully). He's an incredibly thoughtful boy who tries so hard to make his mum happy, and he worries so much about her depression and her sad eyes. He accepts quite maturely that not all stories can have a happy ending, but that happiness is always out there somewhere- and that a person can always help to bring other people happiness even when they can't find it for themselves. While the book itself has some quite dark themes, ultimately it's uplifting and is more about the strength of family and positivity. There is no one way of dealing with grief or depression, no magic cure to make everything better, but Stonebird shows that even then, even when things are absolutely awful, people manage and they are stronger than they think.
I had expected more of a magical tale of a boy and his friendship with a sentient, mobile statue, but the narrative is much more real life than that. Liam struggles with seeing his family fall apart, the various mental illnesses and coping strategies, and he sees the devastation and hurt that dementia brings, something that all too many readers will be able to relate to. It's a much darker book than I had anticipated. Liam learns that while the world is very black and white to a child, when he is forced to grow up and mature very quickly, as he is, the line between good and evil and right and wrong is not so clear, and wishes and decisions can have unexpected, sometimes deadly consequences.
Stonebird would be a brilliant and absorbing read for any 10+ child, but it would be especially pertinent to anyone who is experiencing similar issues at home- dementia, as we are forever being told, is becoming more and more common. It would make a great year 7 class reader, enabling dialogue and discussion about dementia, bereavement, and depression. And depression' unfortunate connection with alcohol dependency. An excellent book, a gripping story and much more real life than its magical fantasy elements might originally suggest.