The experience of reading Clay is like being in a dream. There are recognisable objects and familiar places, but everything is twisted round, suffused with the strange, the extraordinary, the downright miraculous.
David Almond is an award winning author and one of the finest writing for young adults today. Clay is recommended for children over 11, but it’s a novel that may be read and enjoyed (and marvelled at) as much by adults.
Davie and his best friend Geordie are just ordinary kids: altar boys, mediocre students, part of a gang full of mischief and rivalry. When Stephan Rose arrives, sent to live with his crazy Aunt Mary, because his father has died and his mother has gone mad, Father O’Mahoney asks that the boys befriend him. They resist, but Davie soon finds himself drawn to the strange new boy, fascinated as much with Stephan’s ability to create fantastic figures from clay as he is with Stephan’s taunting of Mouldy, the bully who’s vowed to ‘get’ Davie. Stephan has a gift, a real genius, for shaping figures that seem to live and breathe. He recognises something in Davie—some innocence, some goodness—that he can use, and begins to draw him into his plan. Together the boys create a monster from mud, a creature that not only lives but walks and obeys. Then something awful happens to Mouldy, and Davie must take action.
Almond captures all the energy and awkwardness of youth. A first kiss, sneaking cigarettes, goofing around in class, growing away from a best friend—all these scenes are woven into the darker story of Stephan and Davie’s creation. Underneath it all is a childlike egoism that makes these boys feel responsible for the bad things that happen: If we wish it and it happens, then it must have happened because of us.
In the tradition of Frankenstein, and more recently, Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake, Clay is a novel about artistic creation. It’s also a comment on the potentially dangerous nature of what we create. What we make just might take on a life of its own, a life we can’t always control. As a teacher tells Davie, “Our passion to create goes hand and hand with our passion to destroy”. For Almond, artistic creation dwells in the territory of danger and madness, at the border of evil.
Davie hears the words of the monster in his head, which gives us another way of reading the story. The psychological runs alongside and blends with the supernatural. Davie writes it all down, every last crazy thing. He challenges the reader to think it’s just a story. A dream, maybe, that lingers when you wake. Maybe. Then again, maybe not.
Clay offers no tidy answers and no redemption. The creative genius is loose; the will to shape and mould and breathe life into raw material is out there—and in us!—for good or for evil. This is a beautiful, enigmatic novel that questions and provokes, inspires and warns. Almond writes of this dark subject in spare, unadorned language flecked with sudden bursts of gorgeousness. Haunting in its intensity, Clay is destined to become a classic.
Clay, David Almond, Hodder Children’s Books, $16.95.
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in 2005.