This is a review of The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood, a disappointing but in the end promising first novel. The review first appeared in Vector 271, Winter 2012.

godless boysIf I were to say that this novel is set on an island off the English coast it would be true and misleading. In her first novel, Naomi Wood has changed a lot of things to set up her story. She has changed the country’s geography (no comparable island exists where she places it); its political structure (she talks only of England, never Britain); and, most significantly, its history. At some point in the 1940s a religious revival took root in England, almost immediately taking over the government and, in the 1950s, exiling troublesome atheists to the island. In the 1940s, of course, Britain had just fought a world war which had left the country exhausted and broke, but since there is no mention of either war or austerity in Wood’s novel we are left to ponder just when history changed. (We are similarly left to ponder whether the Christian revivalism was Protestant or Catholic, and what exactly might have happened to Jews, Moslems or followers of any other religion; but such nitpicking might be to do the novel a disservice.)

The fact that we find ourselves inevitably raising such questions indicates that there is a certain thinness in Wood’s creation. The prose and the story seem similarly lacking in substance at the start. Early in the novel there’s an exchange between Eliza and the undertaker she works for, in which Eliza denies she is being bothered by Nathaniel’s gang, ‘wondering why she had so quickly lied’. And we wonder, too; there’s no reason for it, and we know too little of Eliza’s character for this to make sense; indeed, even later in the novel when Eliza’s character has been much more, and more sympathetically developed, the lie makes no sense. In response, the undertaker says, ‘Who out of any of us would want union with England?’; but this is Wood telling us how the islanders feel, she does not show it. In fact, we are never entirely clear on the legal status of the island, and other than this statement we see nothing to suggest that other islanders share the gang’s belief. One of the incidental pleasures of reading The Godless Boys, however, is watching Wood acquire confidence as a writer and the consequent increase in the solidity of story and character as the book progresses.

After another upsurge in anti-religious activism in the mid-1970s, another bunch of troublemakers were dispatched to the island, and now, in the novel’s present, it is November 1986, and Sarah Wicks has just discovered that the mother she thought had deserted her ten years before was actually involved in an arson attack on a church, and assumes she was sent to the island. So, full of the naïve bravado of a fifteen-year-old, she smuggles herself onto the island to find her mother.

What she finds there is not what she expects. The islanders, living on a restricted diet (the mainland will not export meat to them) and with limited provisions, have become narrow in their focus. There is no way off the island, so there is no aspiration open to them. This closing in of mental horizons has had a particularly devastating effect upon the children born on the island. A handful of teenage boys, led by Nathaniel Malraux, have, out of boredom, formed themselves into a violent gang, the Malades. With tight jeans, red braces and shaven heads, they seem like a belated manifestation of skinheads, though they might owe rather more to the droogs of A Clockwork Orange, with their uniformity and their curious language. The Malades are convinced that English spies are constantly trying to infiltrate the island to convert the people to religion, so they see themselves as the island’s last line of defence. (There is mention of an island police, but no sight of them; another way in which we don’t seem to be getting the full picture.) In the main, gang activity consists of throwing stones at the houses of anyone they suspect, on the flimsiest of evidence, of holding pro-English sympathies, but as the novel progresses their violence becomes more overt and more dangerous.

When Nathaniel encounters Sarah, therefore, it is far from a meeting of minds. She has no conception of the narrowness of island life or of the barely contained violence implicit in the Malades. He sees her as the English infiltrator he has so long predicted, but at the same time as the exotic outsider that his narrowing horizons have craved. She innocently sees Nathaniel as a route to finding her mother; he plots to trap her on the island as a collector might trap a butterfly. Out of these unpromising beginnings, a romance begins to develop that is tender and convincing and that, in its very ordinariness, throws into sharp relief the extraordinariness of both their lives.

Meanwhile, around them, we witness vignettes of island life. Eliza, whose every avenue of love and hope seems to have been shut off, who now works as a prostitute while island life closes around her like a prison. Nathaniel’s mother, whose horizons have narrowed to her chair and her television since the death of her husband. The once-fervent atheist who finds himself turning back to religion in old age. The fishmonger who feels he has lost his one chance of romance with the prostitute. And Nathaniel’s malign lieutenant who craves ever greater violence against a world in which he has no place.

The stories intersect, building towards a tragedy that is both inevitable and surprising. By the end of the novel characters who, at the beginning, had seemed like little more than rough sketches have become people whose elusive and complex emotions are very real to us. And the contrivance of the setting is all but forgotten as we become caught in the tangled human story that Wood has to tell. This is not a great novel, the awkwardness of the beginning counts against that, but it is a novel that grows and develops as we watch. The result is tender, humane and memorable; I wonder what Naomi Wood might turn her undoubted talents to next.