Anyone who enjoys the two David A’s – naturalist David Attenborough or author David Almond – will love FISH BOY by Chloe Daykin, self-discovery novel by means of a clever bit of magic realism, a talking mackerel.
The fish doesn’t say much, and 12-year-old Billy — who swims avidly in the sea every morning as a way to cope with life, including his ill mother – isn’t sure he heard correctly, until he returns the next day to hear the fish deliver the same confounding message (“Kezdodik.”) Turns out the fish is speaking Hungarian.
Wacky, right? Actually, Chloe Daykin pulls it off brilliantly, with what turns out to be quite a literary middle-grade book, with beautiful language and observations, and rather heartbreakingly poignant David Attenborough wisdom woven through. Billy loves all things Attenborough, and like a mentor on his shoulder, David is always there with a bit of wisdom, which Billy uses to cope with situations in real life, whether it’s his mysteriously sick mother or the bully who has stolen his Nikes, and is now flaunting them at Billy in a crowded playground, as in this scene:
What would David Attenborough do? ….In my mind I ask him and he says, ‘The lead male in a pack may attack at any moment,’ and bumps off over the Serengeti in a Land Rover.
Billy’s shame and confusion over his mother’s illness, which is eventually diagnosed, tempts Billy to give into the call of the mackerel, who (using the words the famous Houdini uttered at the beginning of his underwater-escape act) welcomes Billy into the underwater shoal, and grants Billy the ability to breathe underwater.
Whether Billy makes it through this difficult patch in his family’s life will depend on his one friendship: with new kid Patrick, a fellow misfit and a magic-trick fan, who urges Billy to resist the urge to swim away forever with the mackerel, no matter how magical it is.
My only niggle is that I felt disoriented at the start: I didn’t quite grasp, for instance, that swimming before school was Billy’s thing, and I was left puzzling over what he was doing and why. This story’s fantastic voice, though, quickly pulled me in and swallowed me whole, leaving me desperate for Billy and his family (including the brilliantly drawn father) to get their happy ending.
FISH BOY by Chloe Daykin, illustrations by Richard Jones
Published in the UK 2 March 2017
More info at Faber & Faber