A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond review

22632889In the run-up to the announcement of the UK YA Book Prize I’m reading each of the books on the shortlist. For more details about my reading challenge and the shortlist click here.

I’m the one who’s left behind. I’m the one to tell the tale. I knew them both… knew how they lived and how they died.

Claire is Ella Grey’s best friend. She’s there when the whirlwind arrives on the scene: catapulted into a North East landscape of gutted shipyards; of high arched bridges and ancient collapsed mines. She witnesses a love so dramatic it is as if her best friend has been captured and taken from her. But the loss of her friend to the arms of Orpheus is nothing compared to the loss she feels when Ella is taken from the world. This is her story – as she bears witness to a love so complete; so sure, that not even death can prove final.

I am not sure whether I read this book or dreamt it. A modern retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in the North of England, it had an other-worldly, trance-like quality. The writing is emotive, descriptive and lyrical – almost like a song in places. It tells the story of how Ella Grey and Orpheus meet and fall in love, how Ella is lost to death, and the effect that the arrival of Orpheus and this tragedy has on Ella’s group of teenage friends.

Ella’s best friend Claire is the narrator and her love for Ella is so strong and true, it almost borders on something more than friendship. I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for Claire as first she loses Ella to love, when she is swept off her feet by Orpheus, and then to death.

Music plays a big part in this book, echoing the travelling minstrels of old who would have recounted the original tale of Orpheus and Eurydice in Ancient Greece. Claire and Ella are part of a happy, carefree, bright group of teenagers who spend their time playing musical instruments and singing songs together. It is the sound of their music that first attracts Orpheus to them while on a camping trip on a beach.

Orpheus is a mysterious character, a wanderer who drifts around with his lyre. We never find out where he comes from or anything about him, though we can assume that he comes from another world. Because of this, I found it hard to connect with him or indeed many of the other characters, with perhaps the exception of Claire, as we don’t learn a great deal about them. I don’t think that was by any means an inadequacy of the writing – it was just part and parcel of the style in which the story is told. Even though I didn’t really connect with the characters in this book, I did enjoy the feeling of being transported into a place that was at once reality and not, and just immersing myself in Almond’s beautifully crafted language. I don’t have an awful lot more to say about the book as I think that, even though I have really liked some of Almond’s previous books, perhaps  this particular one wasn’t exactly my cup of tea.

 

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