A Song For Ella Grey
David Almond
Winner, Guardian’s Children’s Prize*

Some books have a kind of magic. It’s a subtle sort of thing, something difficult to articulate, but which has entirely everything to do with the way the prose “feels” in your head. There’s a dream-like quality to it that resonates with something deep and pagan in your soul.

Though that could just be me.

A Song for Ella Grey works on that magical level for me, which is good, because otherwise it’s just a retelling of a well-known Greek myth, which I won’t spoil, though you’ll figure it out instantly as some names aren’t even changed. Like Gospel of Loki, which I reviewed earlier this year, I suspect that knowledge of the source material might diminish the potential impact of this story.

Unless, like me, you fall under the spell of the narrative voice.

There’s another book, Walking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand, that had nearly this exact same feel to it for me, and some ways a lot of the same elements in–in particular a bohemian band of school friends who end up entangled in something ancient and primal that gets out of control. In the center of both books is a character who seems to draw magic to them. Both books are also told from the point of view an outsider-insider, who adds tension to the story by being just enough outside of the group to sense the impending tragedy.

In Song for Ella Grey, our heroine Claire, is Ella’s oldest and dearest friend…and lover–maybe not explicitly, but neither is it entirely subtle.

In fact, for a YA book there is a surprising amount of sex and drinking. Must be a British thing. This book also lays Northern UK slang rather thick on the ground; I had to use Urban Dictionary more than once to parse a sentence.

Ella and Claire and their bohemian buddies decide to spend spring break on the frozen north shore, which they plan to transform into “a Greek Island paradise” with liberal application of free love, liquor, music, and hippy magic. They manage to not only conjure some good times, but also an itinerant, lyre-playing musician named… Orpheus.

Yep.

I told you that you might guess.

When Orpheus falls in love with Ella you kind of know where things might be headed for them both.

I will say, though, too, that when the story goes where you expect, it does do some interesting typographical things. For instance, the white pages with black writing, reverse, and you read Orpheus’s travel on black pages with white lettering.

And, as I said, milage may vary greatly, but I hung around for the story, despite anticipating the plot, because I was emotionally invested in Claire and the weird world she lived in. Her entire A-levels seem to consist of one class and one teacher who may or may not be eternally teaching Paradise Lost. Some of Claire’s classmates, the mean girls clique leader in particular, may be a Fury–or at least able to summon them. It’s all very odd, but weirdly compelling.

I read it in two days, which is something for me, since my mild dyslexia requires me to carefully scan the page and read each word.

But I’m not sure how to recommend it to anyone else. I have no idea if this magical narrative vibe is a thing anyone else experiences with books. If my description intrigues you, give it a try. It’s a very fast read, if nothing else.

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