The snake on the cover of the proof should have been a hint. So should one or two other things on the same cover. Did I look properly? No. Felt uneasy about snakey, but that was after he’d turned up inside the cover as well. David Almond has come up with a cover blurb that goes like this; ‘bold, beautiful, terrifying’. And I thought I’d be safe after that!
This is going to be one of my most incomplete book reviews ever. I rarely write about books I’ve not finished. I rarely read books I have had bad feelings about well before the book even gets to me. As soon as I heard about Janne Teller’s novel Nothing I knew I didn’t want to read it. Didn’t help that everyone raved about it. I was not going to read it.
But, you know. Keith Charters at Strident Publishing raved about it. I warned him. Then it turned out Janne Teller isn’t a Norwegian man. She is a Danish woman. And she’s coming to the Edinburgh Book Festival. And I did need a Danish book for my foreign challenge. And Keith had reserved a rare (?) proof for me. With a snake on the cover.
Nothing is 206 pages, of which I read the first 128. Had this been thirty years ago I would have been on the floor by page 128. I’m much better now, so I simply went off to make dinner, thinking I might return. After dinner I knew I was never returning. Never. Moaned to the Resident IT Consultant, who offered to sacrifice himself, so took the book and read it in one sitting in the bath. (That’s one long bath, albeit a shortish book, which is easy and fast to read. As long as you don’t stop halfway, in which case it’s faster still.)
Fable, he says. Very good. Interesting. Allegory, says Keith. OK, even I could tell that a 14-year-old boy who sits in a plum tree for a few months is not part of a normal, straightforward sort of plot. But even so…
Pierre decides life is nothing, so goes to sit in this plum tree. How this will help, I don’t know. And not even his having a father who is a commune hippy explains this kind of behaviour.
But it’s Pierre’s classmates who really take the biscuit. In order to get him out of the tree, they each have to sacrifice something. Each thing worse than the previous one. (Consider my first paragraph.) It quickly escalates into bullying of the worst kind, which I found really bad even at the snake stage.
I don’t care how allegorical it is. It’s still horrible. I understand it has been banned. (In Norway?) It has also won awards. I can understand that, too. I can condone lots of violence in books, and bullying and what have you. This was something else.
(Lord of the Flies, she whispers.)
But I recognise that many of you will like this book. Love it, even. So if you are not the fainting type, do try it. As the Resident IT Consultant said, it should spark plenty of discussion in classrooms and elsewhere. As it did here.
I will do my very best to meet Janne Teller later this month. I have tickets for her event. That might turn out to be a lying-on-the-floor-from-the-start kind of event. With earplugs.
(At least Janne is Danish. And a lady. Unlike Jo Nesbø, who really is male and Norwegian. Also in Edinburgh.)
The translator is Martin Aitken, who has done a good job. Some surprising Americanisms, which personally I find makes the book feel less Danish. But it reads well, as people keep saying.
A few days after the interrupted read, the dinner and the long bath, I’m thinking maybe…