Friday, September 10, 2010

"Where I am is Neverland."

Title/Author: Neverland by Douglas Clegg.

Genre: Horror, dark fantasy.

Publisher: Vanguard Press.

Source: Purchased at Amazon.

Favorite character: Beau and Julianne.

Creepiest character: Sumter.

Favorite quote: “The place they said where the dead would dance.” “You haven’t been dead yet. You don’t know how peaceful it is.”

All in all: Neverland delivers!

Neverland is told from 10 year old Beau Jackson’s point of view as he recounts his last vacation on Gull Island off the coast of Georgia. The island is not a lovely oasis but sparsely populated, humid, hot and swampy and they stay with his "Grammy" in her large, old house.

The antagonist is Sumter, Beau’s cousin. (Shudder.) I never want to meet this kid. He is creepy and at times just downright disgusting. I actually had a visceral reaction to some of his antics. Beau always seems to suffer from Sumter’s actions, from following behind him through pricker bushes to the larger escapades that Sumter draws him into. The two boys may seem like opposites, but they share a gift for imagination.

Neverland is the name that Sumter gives to his refuge. On the outside it is a shack on the property but on the inside is another realm. “Where I am is Neverland.” Is a recurring quote and theme in the story. But what does Neverland reflect? Who rules there and what goes on? There is a question throughout as to what the children are experiencing, imagining, playing. Beau could be an unreliable narrator, but what Sumter tells him could be unreliable too. What do memories look like from a child’s point of view when make-believe is so close to the surface?

Their parents are always fighting, with each other and with Grammy and the drinking, underlying tension and secrets that surround them results in the kids wanting to escape. Beau states at one point that “dinner was torture” and one time he noticed that the adults at the table behaved like “children sulking.” The adult dynamics and the children’s world mirror each other. As the games and family fights escalate, so does the tension. The adults self medicate with alcohol and the kids self medicate with Neverland.

What I liked: The writing is so extremely clever and beautiful. Clegg shows things in a unique and fresh way. (“My spinal cord wanted to wiggle out of my back.” “…southern accent tugged at vowel sounds as if for dear life…”) I think he would be able to successfully describe a color I’ve never seen before.  I was able to imagine the house so clearly I’m sure I could build it, I could feel the island so vividly it felt like I was standing on the porch of the house, or walking on the beach.  And I could envision the kids so well I’m sure I would recognize them if I saw them on the street. The story is deep and woven with foreshadowing and metaphors. I felt like I had all the puzzle pieces around me but I had to read till the end to see what the true picture was.

“Where did fear come from?” This sentence stopped me in my tracks. What a great question for the characters, for readers and for writers. I watch a lot of scary movies, but most don’t really frighten me. However, the horror in Neverland delivers and the creepiness factor is a 10. It was disturbing to experience this secret place starting with Beau’s first visit.  “The nightmares all began the same way after that,” he says after an early encounter. This line gave me goosebumps! There is danger in the mundane, from flowing seaweed to a stuffed teddy bear. Another theme running throughout the story is that when you are alive is when you hurt. Can you see where this kind of thought might take an imaginative and unhappy child? For me, that shack represented the dark power of the mind and it’s influences.

Beau has always been a “good boy” and did what he was told. No wonder a place as seductive as Neverland would be enough to make him stray. He is thrilled to have a secret life, but is torn because he doesn’t want to be pulled under with Sumter. He fights the allure of the games and at times it seems there is a fight for his soul. I really liked him because he shows empathy and is protective of his siblings.

The story crescendoes as the summer draws to a close. Beau grows tired of the games, with his cousin’s behavior and a bit unraveled from not being quite sure what is real and what is not. His sisters are basically turning their heads, not wanting to see the truth. The adults either don’t believe or are too afraid and Beau doesn’t know who to turn to. It is his love for someone else and his innate sense of right and wrong that make him step up. Ironically, it is as if he has to be the “grown up” now, because he is the only one who may be able to fix things.

Neverland is a memory and Clegg is skilled in relaying memories. I’ve read two of his other novels (You Come When I Call You and The Hour Before Dark) and while they are all very different stories, they all rely on memories in different ways. There is something surreal about memories. They almost read like dreams, except one is real and one comes from your own mind. Or maybe that is a line that will always be blurred.

It took me a while to organize my thoughts and write this review and I could go on and on about this book.  It would make a great choice for a book club where it can be discussed at length, from the section and chapter titles, (“Hurt” and “Dread Night”), to the metaphors that are so abundant. I would love to know what you think about Neverland. I will always be up for talking about it.

I give this book a 5 out of 5 stars.


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