Published by Barrington Stoke Ltd.
Review by Anna King.
Throughout my childhood, I read my way through children’s fiction – old and new – from Jacqueline Wilson to Noel Streatfeild to Louis Sachar. However, while these authors are all excellent in their own right, reading Rook made me regret that I hadn’t picked up something like it when I was younger. The novella is wondrously relatable for young people in the north of England, on the cusp of puberty and all that comes with it. In Nicky, Anthony McGowan has deftly blended innocence, grittiness, honesty and confusing emotion to convey a character easily understood by anyone making the uncomfortable journey to adolescence.
The storyline follows Nicky, our protagonist, experiencing the agony of his first love and his uncontrollably ridiculous responses to it. While the plot would be painfully dull and teenage if this were all it were reduced to, the character of Kenny (Nicky’s brother) adds a whole new dimension to the narrative: as the pair rescue a dying rook, McGowan explores the oxymoronic love and frustration felt by any child towards their sibling in a blunt but tender manner.
Simplicity, I believe, is very important in this book; as the novel is written from Nicky’s perspective, an overly complex vocabulary or attempt to intellectualise every thought would be unpleasant for readers and wholly unrealistic. While the minimalistic phrasing is a little grating initially, it must be said that it adds to the book’s believable nature, and is ideal for encouraging young or struggling readers to give the book a try. Also, being just over 100 pages long, it remains a perfect holiday read for children and wouldn’t appear overwhelming at first glance. The writing – in turns explicit, beautiful and straightforward – portrays Nicky’s character exquisitely: McGowan has skilfully mastered the art of writing like a child, something that so many writers struggle with. The characters were vivid and all too real, and the dialogue witty yet ordinary, fitting the context perfectly. Nothing broke the realism of the story, thankfully – not a cheap quip or gripe tacked to the end of a conversation or a totally ridiculous “and everything turned out perfectly” ending – which definitely made the book enjoyable and prevented it from becoming infantile.
One slightly unfortunate aspect of the novella was its unnecessary vulgarity in places – but this is certainly forgivable, especially given the fact that the narrator is supposedly a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old boy entertaining his younger brother. Altogether, the book is a heart-warming triumph and, while it touches on some slightly delicate themes (bullying, neglect, learning difficulties), it really is a perfect addition to any child’s bookshelf, particularly for those who have grown up in northern England, for the satisfaction of relating so deeply to the characters.