The always fabulous Sally Gardner has outdone herself with a chilling speculative vision of a fascist 1950s regime in her Costa award-winning novel, Maggot Moon.
Standish lives in Zone 7, a forgotten slum of The Motherland where every day is bleak and violent. Without Gramps and his friend Hector, life would be unbearable. But when Hector and his family disappear in the dead of night and the day of the much-anticipated first moon landing draws nearer, Standish decides that something must be done. Despite his challenges (Standish has difficulty reading), he could be the person who throws the rock that takes down the giant.
The novel takes place in what feels like 1950s England, should the Nazi’s have won WWII. The Motherland is racing towards the first moon landing to prove their supremacy to the rest of the world. The author has been a bit mum on the exact setting but gives an eloquent explanation of it here. In this lovely piece Gardner also talks about dyslexia, something her character Standish (and she herself) struggles with. Standish’s narration is full of unique observations, something the author contributes to his dyslexia, which allows him to see the world differently. This makes for some memorable and fresh descriptions.
The narrative is steeped in metaphor and told in jagged, non-sequential sections. There is a lot left to the imagination in terms of the setting, the details of The Motherland’s rise to power and regime, and what exists in the outside world. Despite some graphically depicted scenes, there are moments of tenderness and hope, such as Standish’s dreams of a world in technicolour, with ice-cream coloured Cadillacs and Croca-colas, his friendship with Hector, and his loving, supportive Gramps, an ex-scene painter who is part of the resistance (if you can call it that). One of my favourite moments is when a relentless bully sides with Standish and sticks up for a child who is brutally beaten by a cruel teacher.
This is a powerful book with scenes of graphic violence and horrifying abuses of power. It reminded me in parts of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Janne Teller’s Nothing, a book that chilled me to the bone. Though it may be too strong for some readers, it provides an excellent basis for discussion on power, rebellion, hope, humanity, and change. Sometimes a piece of well-written speculative fiction is the perfect mirror in which to reflect what’s happening in the world today. The central metaphor of David taking down Goliath is well drawn and moving. There is just enough distance that readers can disassociate from the truly terrifying situations, but there are lots of opportunities for them to make comparisons to our own world. Very powerful stuff.
Maggot Moon is available now in hard cover from Penguin Canada.