Tuesday, March 1, 2011

An Extraordinary Prequel - A review of David Almond's 'My name is Mina'

When requested by his publisher to write a sequel to his award-winning book Skellig, David Almond chose to write a prequel instead. And what a prequel it has turned out to be. The book is beautifully fresh, both in appearance and content. Almond uses it as a device to challenge basic beliefs about almost everything in a playful, light-hearted way. The book is unusual. The peculiarity starts right from the beautiful cover, which is gold and white with some words from the beginning of the book embossed on it. It continues inside where a variety of fonts and layouts are used without any inhibition. And it does not stop here. This is a book in which “nothing barmy happens at all”. In the name of plot, there are only a couple of mild twists, the first on the day of SATS and the other towards the end when Mina, the lead character, goes up to say hello to the boy whose family has just moved into Mr. Myers house. This sets a very nice tone for Skellig.

The best way to describe Mina is to use the same word that she uses to describe various things that fascinate her – “extraordinary”. Mina is an intelligent, clever, and witty girl who has an extremely believable voice for her age but a maturity far beyond her years. This practically makes her a “misfit”. She has a warm, inquisitive and open-minded approach towards everything. World is beautiful from her point of view. Even in this, the book is unusual in being remarkably clear of clichés. Mina finds beauty not in butterflies, flowers, clouds, and rainbows but in night, bats, blackbirds, owls, owl pellets, eggs, and black cats. Her affinity towards the so-called dark side of the world and her reflections about the possible tediousness of heaven tugs at readers’ prejudices without making them feel resentful.

Mina is “strange” and through this strangeness Almond takes a jab at the stencilled approach towards schooling. “I was told by my teacher that I should not write anything until I had planned what I would write. What nonsense! Do I plan a sentence before I speak it? Of course I do not! Does a bird plan its song before it sings? Of course it does not!” Similarly he questions the usefulness of SATS – “And did William Blake do writing tasks just because somebody else told him to? What level would he have got anyway?” One can very well imagine Almond chuckling while writing this clever book, which seems more like an experiment that went well.

A creature of the night, Mina dwells in the nature among trees, blackbirds and owls. She comfortably dabbles in the spiritual beliefs of Plato, Hinduism and Buddhism. Her effortless wondering about complicated concepts such as metempsychosis and her exploration of the underworld in search for her deceased father bring to light the main theme of the book, her coping with her father’s death. The book deliberately stays clear of mundane details about the death and focuses, instead, on her subtle longing for her father. Nothing exemplifies it more beautifully than her remarks at Mr. Myers’ daughter’s callousness. “You had him until he was old! You had your dad till he was old and you didn’t care!”



Mina and her mother share a friendly, affectionate relationship. They understand each other’s strangeness and deal with it lovingly and empathetically, whether it is about Mina ruining her SATS or her mother dating a man. And towards the end of the book, holding hands and talking about walking and drawing and Wordsworth and meditation, they accept their loss and its irrevocability. “I do shed a tear. I do know that wherever he is or whatever he is now, there’s no way for him to come back again. There’s no underworld to go to. There’s no Pluto to go to.”

And, by the time you reach the end of the book, as Mina embarks on a new friendship, you fall hopelessly in love with this strange book and this strange girl and hope that they never go through the “destrangification operation” ever. Extraordinary!

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