Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Five Boys

Mick Jackson

This is the second Mick Jackson I've read, after his intriguing Booker-nominated The Underground Man. I picked it up in a charity shop in Edinburgh this summer, because a holiday isn't a holiday if you don't use it to buy books.

Five Boys is both less linear and more singular than The Underground Man. Browsing the author's website, I find it interesting and unsurprising that the book had a completely different title, The Bee King, until the last minute. It certainly doesn't read like the story of the five boys, beginning to end. It doesn't read like the story of the bee king, either.

It reads excellently, though. Eccentric and witty I expected from Jackson, but humane and a touch of sadness are happy additions. I don't want to kill the allure of the book by saying this, but it is uncompromisingly pleasant to read. That feels a bit like the Hitch Hikers Guide calling Earth 'harmless,' but I mean it as a compliment.

Five Boys is mysterious, in that it doesn't bother to explain itself on most occasions. That fits, I feel, with the children's perspective that a lot of this book is told from. The world is what it is, and most young boys take it on those terms. It's only when you're older you sometimes recognise how weird some childhood incidents were.

The mystery is never solved; the book doesn't have a loose end-tying, all together-bringing finale. It's uncohesive, but not in a bad way. The whole thing is episodic, almost like a series of interconnected short stories at times, so there is no expectation of a last chapter to make it all make sense. It's not like reading Infinite Jest, where the reader is teased with glimpses of potential but never fulfilled cohesion. Five Boys is in no way frustrating.

The lack of cohesion, of a continous line joining the beginning and the end and everything inbetween, is in reality the lack of a main character. It seems like Bobby, the young evacuee, is the subject of the book--until the second half, in which he doesn't appear.Go figure, says the book, and I went and figured.

I figured that there is a main character, in a sense. It's the Devonshire village of Dartington, and its story is told through the partial lives of the people that make it up, good and bad and weird and stupid. Their little stories make up the bigger story of the village, just like each bee buzzing contributes to the singular hum of the hive. And the bee king is not really a king at all, but the queen of the Dartington hive.

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