Religion can be a difficult and often treacherous issue to tackle for any author and especially for one making her debut on the literary stage. But on reading Naomi Wood’s The Godless Boys I soon realised that, like with many conflicts across the world, it’s not really about religion, but actually about the relationships between people and the complex feelings and emotions these relationships can throw up. Put more simply, it’s about love. It’s the feeling of love and the intense feelings of loneliness that can follow when love is lacking, that really give this book a heart and soul, but that also convey a feeling of hopelessness and a profound sense of loss.
Told from the point of view of former members of a secular movement who have been exiled from England back in the 1950s and 1970s, The Godless Boys gets off to a rather mysterious start with the burning of a church and a selfless act by a young women that will have far reaching consequences years later on an island off the coast of North England.
Set ten years in the future, these former political activists have now settled into mundane life on an isolated island far from England’s shores. Initially seeing the deportation as a liberation from the God-filled ways of England, the islanders (or at least the older members) have quickly come to realise that they are imprisoned with no ways of escape. Powerless and forgotten, surrounded by a dangerous sea, and with little connection to the outside world, the descendants of the initial settlers have begun to turn on the other members of the island and each other with accusations of being English spies.
This is where Nathaniel Malraux, a miserable and misplaced teenager, comes in. He is head of a gang of youths called the Malades. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, the teenagers have started terrorising the residents of the island in their determination to hunt out English spies and, at the same time, give their lives some kind of meaning. Echoing Lord of the Flies, this is an almost chilling tale of what young boys can get up to when left to their own devices with nobody capable of controlling them.
Malraux’s world is then thrown upside down with the arrival of Sarah, a stowaway English girl looking for her mother, the very woman whose part in burning a church sets off the events happening in the here and now. As time goes on, the boy is forced to choose between his friends and the life he knows or the promise of a better future. This love story plays out a bit like a modern day Romeo and Juliet, and this is one such tale that seems to carry with it an inevitable air of tragedy.
Another young islander, Eliza Milchauka, has fallen into life a prostitute Left all alone after the death of her mother and rejected by the man she loved, She was forced to turn to the only place she could find work: in a brothel. Haunting the fishmongers where her former love works, Milchauka dreams of starting a new life in England and leaving the gossip and rejection behind her. Despite her profession, the innocence of her love is actually quite touching.
Where Wood really succeeds here is in portraying a complexity to almost all of the main characters in the book. Malraux, on the surface, may just seem like just another teenage thug, but dig deeper and you find a lonely youth devastated by the death of his father and trying his best to make his grieving mother happy. He is capable of acting with real tenderness towards his mother and Sarah but also of brutality towards his friends and enemies. Milchauka is also a fairly interesting character. She is a prostitute yet seems to have the highest moral values of all and you get the impression life has been far from easy. The gossiping hags in the community help to add to the feeling of claustrophobia that prevails here.
A real sense of tension and suspense runs highly throughout this novel. The bleakness and ruggedness of the landscape and the isolation that the residents feel help to give the island an almost human nature. The seemingly miserable existence that most of the islanders live day-to-day make this a thoroughly depressing read at times. The hope that both Malraux and Milchauka feel at their escape (either metaphorically or literally) is like a small glimmer of sunshine in an otherwise grim existence.
Where this novel falls down slightly is that everything moves at such a slow pace; maybe this a deliberate ploy to give the reader a sense of the mundane feeling of life on the island, but it leaves you with the feeling that you are half way through the book and still nothing has really happened. The ending is slightly anti-climatic as well, as there was a lack of an emotional connection to the events that unfolded. At the end of the day, this book is more about the people in it and their relationships with each other than religion or the shocking behaviour that this can sometimes provoke. And this is where Wood really excels, in providing a depth to her characters and exploring the difficult relationships that last from adolescence through to adulthood.
Any Cop?: This isn’t a difficult read but it is a depressing one. A good debut novel there is definite potential for development.