The Godless Boys, by Naomi Wood

3.5 stars3.5 / 5

An evening event at Picador brought debut author Naomi Wood to my attention. She read aloud from her new novel The Godless Boys, while looking effortless in a pair of stylish trousers and simple blouse. (I was feeling bedraggled at the time and hence, a little envious). Sartorial choices aside, Naomi’s reading was engaging and I was left with the impression that her new story might be mentally taxing or it might be just very interesting so I thought I’d find out which.

The Godless Boys, Naomi Wood

Picador, 2011 edition, paperback, 320 pages - review copy.

I do like the odd dollop of speculative fiction once in a while and I got on very well with Never Let Me Go recently. It is a curious journey to be lead down the path of an alternative reality.

The Godless Boys is set in the 1980’s. England is controlled by the Church, and members of the Secular Movement have been expelled to an island. References to home-made bombs and guerrilla terrorist activity evoke images akin to those that occurred during The Troubles in Ireland. Segregated, the population live a simple life but an unsettled one. A gang of young men has formed – Nathaniel and his ‘Malades’. They skulk about hunting for signs of religious devotion amongst the islanders and keen to punish those who have strayed. When flame-haired Sarah Wickes arrives on the island seeking her mother, she becomes caught up in more than one type of conflict.

I was a little bemused about where this island actually was. Sarah is from Newcastle, and the novel often refers to Warkworth bay and cliffs, however I couldn’t place where the island would actually be. Poetic licence I suppose, although I did think it would be interesting if it had been set in Lindisfarne (Holy Island) due to the theme of religious conflict in the novel. Wood’s descriptive capacity really is wonderful though – I could really sense the briny atmosphere and the dramatic sense of isolation amidst a stormy sea.

I found interesting the idea of younger generations taking up a cause that they would have no living memory of, especially in light of the recent attacks on police officers in Ireland. Is it because of the scars left behind through the generations, some innate human desire for conflict or a result of deprivation? The answer probably lies somewhere between all three causes and to be honest, it’s probably best if I don’t dwell too much on the downsides of the human condition!

I really warmed to the characters of Eliza and Arthur, a seemingly star-crossed pair, and I also liked Sarah. She was feisty but with a very real sense of peril. Nathaniel was convincingly charming yet there was always a sense of threat lurking under the surface. When I was first introduced to the ‘Malades’, I must admit that I felt they were too much reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange’s Alex and his ‘droogs’ especially with the boys’ obsession with tight trousers and shaved heads. I also found that in parts of the book, Wood was working a bit hard to get all of her ideas across – that said, she did a rather excellent job of portraying quite a detailed world, with its own topsy-turvy dialect, code of ethics and history. I could really picture it and was drawn into the hopes and fears of the islanders. The tension was racked up in the second half of the book because I really cared about what would happen to Eliza and Arthur, Sarah and Nathaniel this really carried through to the end.

So was The Godless Boys original? Well, kind of… I felt that the novel borrowed and built on ideas from other speculative novels yet had a definite style of its own. Was it interesting? Yes. Ms Wood’s angle on human belief systems and reasons for conflict is conveyed through a well-paced plot with convincing characters. I’m looking forward to seeing how she develops her style in the future.

Do you enjoy speculative / dystopian fiction and if so what books have really made an impact on you in this genre?

7 responses to “The Godless Boys, by Naomi Wood

  1. Great review, I’ve been thinking of reading this book for a while but haven’t been able to make my mind up on whether or not I’d like it, I’ve read a lot of mixed reviews.

    I do like speculative and dystopian fiction, but the world portrayed in the book needs to be plausible, something I can immerse myself in. I loved Never Let Me Go and 1984. I guess Cloud Atlas has a speculative element to it when it skips to the future, with the clones working in a fast food restaurant. It’s only a short portrayal of an alternative world but I found it original.

  2. This sounds intriguing, Polly. I do like dystopian/speculative fiction, so I will add this to the list.

  3. This certainly sounds interesting. I don’t think I read much dystopian fiction but anything about religion always interests me.

  4. Interesting thoughts Polly, I am still mulling this one over (its one of the many books which are review pending at the moment in Savidge Reads towers) so I will hold off saying tio much for now, apart from the fact that we both concur, oddly without having discussed it, on many of the themes and thoughts.

  5. I read this the other week, and would pretty much agree with you. She’s very good at evoking the setting with just a few details.

    I did wondered whether the Island might be Lindisfarne, but I guess you don’t need a boat to get there, so it can’t be. It’s definitely off the Northumberland/Tyne & Wear coast, though. As for the youngsters taking up the cause, I’d put that down to tradition; the Island is all they’ve ever known, so they do what their parents did.

    If you enjoyed this, I would also recommend The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett, which provides an interesting point of contrast.

  6. I don’t read a lot of this genre, but I did enjoy The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall.

  7. Pingback: Friday Finds (1) | Book Nympho

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