Allen & Unwin
Paperback – 352 pages
Lemony Snicket, this is not! While you may well be used to the dark humour of the LS children’s novels, this newest novel from the same author, alternatively known as Daniel Handler, is a disturbing mix of fantastical realism most definitely only suited to mature readers.
Against a backdrop of contemporary San Francisco, Handler presents an interesting take on modern family dynamics as he introduces the Needles family – Phil, struggling radio producer with a condo he can’t afford and a family to which he can’t relate; Marina, bored unfulfilled wife whose painting is not enough to sustain either her married life or her relationship with her daughter; Gwen, fourteen and troubled, a shoplifter, ex-swimmer, rebel with a desire for romantic adventure.
When Gwen assumes an alter ego as Octavia and swash buckles her way through a swathe of shoplifting at her neighbourhood drugstore and is busted bigtime, she is forced to spend ‘punishment’ time as companion to Errol, an Alzheimer’s patient who imagines himself as a retired Navy veteran, who revels in piratical fiction and non-fiction.
Gwen and her newly acquired friend Amber, a strangely fierce and feisty being, take to the pirate notion with fervour and begin to plot to escape the humdrum existence of their teenaged lives and useless parents with adventure on the high seas. It is a little difficult to imagine two 14 year olds enthusiastically embracing such offerings as Captain Blood but it is the hook for the rest of the plot.
They ‘spring’ Errol from his retirement home and almost accidentally acquire a couple of other crew members and hey ho! It’s off to sea they go – in San Francisco bay, where they create not just mayhem but murder with a very nasty edge to it.
While this is all rolling along, Phil Needles is beset with complications around a radio project he is developing, his not-very-successful production company and his attractive new assistant. Summoned home from a conference, where he is meant to be pitching his newest idea, by news that his daughter has gone missing, Phil’s professional worries are eclipsed by Gwen’s disappearance and his wife’s manic reaction.
With an ending that is bleak and, frankly, creepy this is not a novel for the faint-hearted. I found the plot somewhat uneven and the characters are at times more caricatures but it was nonetheless intriguing and often very humorous, albeit also somewhat repugnant at times.
With a dose of very explicit language and sexual references, this would only be suitable for your Senior students if you chose to add it to your library collection (the publisher’s comment is that it is an adult novel). On a personal note, you may like to try it out yourself, to see another side to Lemony Snicket.
Listen to Daniel Handler talk about the book here.