Naomi Wood’s The Godless Boys (Picador, 2011) was mentioned a number of times early last year as a possibility the Clarke Award shortlist, along with Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. I never included them on the actual Shortlist Project list but always intended to read them and append my thoughts to the main body of the project. I covered Zone One yesterday; it clearly engages with genre tropes even if it’s also doing something else, and I enjoyed it a good deal. I could see it as a Clarke Award shortlist outlier. However, I cannot say the same about The Godless Boys, for all sorts of reasons, which I shall now enumerate and discuss
Genre, literary and mainstream, whatever they mean as terms individually, are all part of a reading continuum so far as I’m concerned. I’m fairly eclectic in my tastes and move happily back and forth along that continuum. I understand that different writers use the same tropes and devices in different ways and I try to be open to what they’re doing. Whitehead used zombies to satirise elements of contemporary culture but he did so from the point of view of understanding thoroughly how the trope works and, indeed, adding to it in a rather poignant way (which may make him the only person I can think of who has written sympathetically about zombies). Though his novel primarily addresses the problems of rebuilding civilisation using the fragments of a civilisation that was not fit for purpose to begin with, while also being quietly elegiac for that which has been lost, the different elements of story solidly support one another in their overall endeavour.
The Godless Boys<employs another staple of the sf genre, the alternative history. The premise here is that at some point in the late 1940s (there is no indication that World War II ever occurred), an upsurge in religious fervour led to the election to government of a fervently Christian political party. This led to people having to be registered as Christian or non-affiliated, which in turn led to increasing discrimination of the non-affiliated, in a manner deeply reminiscent of the ways in which Jews were treated in pre-war Nazi Germany in our own timeline, mixed in with elements of the USA’s Jim Crow segregation rules and various other bits of discriminatory behaviour taken from recent world history. This leads to the rise of the Secular Movement in the early 1950s, whose acts included firebombing places of worship and results in members of the Movement being deported to an island off the north-east coast of England.
A reader’s understanding of how a trope works can sometimes come into conflict with an author’s use of that trope. Had Wood simply set her novel in a different place, that is, if she’d devised an alternative history, used it as a background without comment, and got on with the story, I might have briefly wondered where the point of divergence had been and got on with the story itself. If the background is sufficiently secure in the writer’s mind, I would argue that it is also secure on the page and the reader will only momentarily pause to wonder.
As it is, Wood spends so much time fiddling around with dates, establishing a chronology for the Movement, the reader’s attention immediately turns to wondering when the point of divergence occurred. In all, it becomes a distraction from the actual story; one spends too much time worrying over how a religious party might have come to power in 20th-century Britain, or rather England, given there is no indication that anywhere else exists in this alternative timeline, as though England exists under a glass cover, cut off from the rest of the world. And so the reader becomes overly preoccupied with things that shouldn’t really matter. As if that were not enough, she also provides a timeframe for the novel itself, providing dates for sections, once again suggesting that she herself is not really clear where in time this novel exists.
Indeed, one might ask whether it exists in time at all, for the novel itself is set almost exclusively on the island, or rather, the Island. It has no other name and, for that matter, no geographical location other than that it is somewhere off the coast of north-east England, a ten-hour boat trip from Newcastle, and thirty years back in time from 1986. Of course, no such island exists, though the situation on the island reminded me oddly of the Channel Islands during German occupation.
The island, of course, is a classic metaphor of isolation, a microcosmic society, a prison. Yet, once again, I found myself asking all those difficult questions about its social organisation and its economy, dependent as it is on those who exiled its inhabitants for pretty much everything. The deprivation is of course a punishment but the motives of the ruling party remain unclear; why send them into internal exile? Why not expel them from the country altogether, other than that it wouldn’t make much of a story.
Except, of course, that it would, because the prevailing political and religious climate, the island’s isolation, are revealed in turn to be irrelevant to the actual heart of the story. They provide things to do, reasons for people to be where thy are, and they make life difficult, but in truth, this story does not need religious extremism any more than it needs to be set on an island. at the heart of the story are teenage boys with nothing to do and a teenage girl looking for her lost mother. This is a novel about grief, mourning, emotional deprivation and failures of communication, and that could be set anywhere. Indeed, it is noticeable that once Wood stops fussing about establishing the setting and the nature of the community and focuses on the relationships between the members of the Malades, a gang of teenage boys led by Nathaniel Malraux, the other islanders and the stowaway, Sarah Wicks, who has come looking for her mother, the storytelling does begin to improve. Wood is much better at evoking that small but significant detail that evokes the nature of a relationship than she is at telling a story that exploits setting and society. Which prompts one to ask why she settled for this unconvincing alternative history of secular persecution and island exile in the first place.
Yes, the Malades exist in order to ferret out evidence of English spies, of people having returned to Christian worship, driven by Nathaniel’s need to avenge his father’s death – Nathaniel wears his father’s work boots, which he literally has yet to grow into – but this is merely a convenient peg on which to hang their existence rather than something central to the novel. Indeed, the Malades owe as much to Alex and his droogs in A Clockwork Orange as they do to anything else. Again, they could come from anywhere or belong anywhere. They need neither an alternative history or an island in order to spring into being.
In the end, this novel simply doesn’t make sense. It feels as though a series of unwise choices were made, forcing the author to tread a certain path, to the point where it was simpler to go on than to turn back. There is a sense of growing confidence in the writing as though the author has finally realised what she wants to write about by the time she gets to the end, but what to do with the material she has accumulated along the way? Easier to retain it than to start again? It’s hard to blame the author after all that work but it does mean that the novel as it now exists feels as though it’s been pulled and pushed all over the place before being wrangled into something that will pass for a novel. That can’t have been satisfying for the writer and it certainly isn’t satisfying for the reader. Not even a helpful subtitle – A Story of Love and Violence – can entirely rescue it.
I suppose the point is that whereas Whitehead understood how tropes work and used them to his advantage Naomi Wood has used tropes to try and paper over the weaknesses in the story, to provide instant background and story setting, without fully appreciating how this might impinge on the actual plot (which is, god knows, thin enough as it is). There is, to be fair, some potential in this novel, but it remains hidden behind the frantic hand-waving and pick-and-mix approach until it’s far too late to be of any use.