Review Blog

Dec 18 2016

Beck by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff

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Walker Books, 2016. ISBN 9781406331127
(Age: Adults - senior secondary). Highly recommended. Warning: Violent sex scene. Reading this novel is like being plunged deep into a maelstrom. The writers take us back in time to the devastatingly poor world of the early 1900s. Here a woman and a man come together briefly, she using her body simply to make enough money to feed her child and herself, he a lonely sailor in a foreign port. This is unflinchingly told - as we learn that she is not a prostitute, but her body was the only means left to enable her survival.
This is a bald tale, as the writers establish from the start. After his mothers death and his horrifyingly harsh early years, Beck is put on a boat that will take him to Canada, for what reason he is utterly unaware. The Catholic brothers, who take in the orphans, are apparently generous and kind, feeding and clothing the boys in readiness for their going out into the world to find work. At this point it seems to be a world of some degree of decency. However, the one scene, so vividly described it feels like one is watching it on stage, and indeed plays back in the mind like one - reverberated in the days following my reading. The child Beck, with little knowledge of anything in the world, is treated so horrifyingly that it stayed vivid, coloured by deep emotions, disgust and anger.
The scene is left as a dread noose that colours Becks life. Yet, bravely told, this tale, of the potential for immense human cruelty and indeed of disdain for others, is a new genre of a literary story that leaps away from the heart-warming story genre into the reality genre. The writers lift the story up from this point, and draw vividly, the dark world of early European settlement in the wilds of Canada, where the struggle to survive is hard enough, while to do more, to thrive, seems an impossibility, especially for a young black boy who is utterly alone in the world.
This novel is a tale of a harsh world, offering almost no hope for the protagonist, but somehow the writers manage to keep us entranced, desperate as we might be to find a glow of goodness that is not fake, and indeed keep us reading with hope through to the end. Our hero's life begins, towards the end, to be turn, and indeed the end is a balm for the bruised spirit.
I could not recommend it for young readers. It is far too brutal, too shocking in its revelations of our human capacity for evil, for young readers. It took me days to stop replaying some of the scenes, and I ached for days afterwards in thinking about the characters and the world of this text, its absolutely grueling severity and the harsh struggle to survive. As I write I notice that Canada and the northern US states are plunged into another polar vortex, with temperatures of up to minus 20C. I have been in that part of the world in minus 45C - in the modern world this is bearable, but back in the days of this novel, it would have been almost impossible to survive. It is a book one lives through and it is worthwhile, perhaps transformative, in the end.
Liz Bondar

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