Book review: The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood
Philip Womack is uninspired by a dystopian debut
The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood (Picador)
Naomi Wood’s debut novel imagines a world in which, post-Second World War, in Britain, a different type of segregation takes place. Those who are affiliated to churches carry light-coloured identity papers, take the best jobs and generally look down upon those who carry dark papers. These latter are atheists – godless. Understandably the atheists are a bit peeved, so they embark upon a series of increasingly violent attacks, killing parsons and burning churches until they are all deported, in two waves (one in the early 1950s, one in the late 1970s) to an island that is about ten hours’ chug from Newcastle.
Leaving aside the faint whiffs of implausibility – is it really convincing that after the horrors of the war the country would explode in more senseless violence? (where are all the hippies?) – Naomi Wood evokes her alternative reality with a sensuousness that at its best achieves an eerie lyricism. Her island community becomes a place of starkness, forever fixed in a never-never, deprived 1950s, where the fishmonger is the centre of the world, conversations consist of “ayes”, and nobody’s eaten meat for years. It’s not the most fun place to grow up. Hence “The Godless Boys” of the title, who are a group of discontented skinhead teenagers calling themselves the Malades. In sub-Clockwork Orange fashion, these malchiks dress up to commit acts of violence on people they suspect of godly behaviour. Meanwhile, a tart with a heart pines for said fishmonger and writes messages to herself under her hairline (she doesn’t have a television, one presumes; unlike the other people on the island, who, despite viewing anything from “England” with extreme suspicion, seem quite happy to watch English soap operas).
On to the island comes a flash of colour in the form of a flame-haired girl who is seeking her mother, the driver of a getaway car, who she suspects was deported. Her arrival causes the leader of the Malades to question his acts of violence, and the tart to question her tartness. Wood deploys her characters carefully, showing their delight in small things – a sea bream, or a ruined church. She conveys intensity and intimacy well, as in a scene where the Malade chief lets the English girl have a bath in his house, and looks at her in the mirror.
And yet, one can’t help thinking that there is a much better book hiding here. Wood is over-fond of repetition and unnecessary detail. Her similes seem “writerly”, their relationship to the text not properly thought through: “the pigs looked like children on their first day at school, their heads hung in snouty commiseration.” It’s a small point, but children on their first day at school are much more likely to be excited, and a little bit scared.
The questions raised by the subject matter are avoided; the unresolved ending frustrating. As a whole it feels baggy and loose, as if it once had a kernel of its own, but has long since lost sight of its beginning.