A Song for Ella Grey is a beautifully written book. A friend lent me her proof copy after I said I’d not managed to get on with the couple of David Almond books I’d read before. You know how sometimes everyone raves about a writer and you just don’t feel it yourself? And you worry that everyone else is seeing something you’re not, and it makes you feel that maybe you’re not an intelligent reader because you just don’t get it?
Well, I get this one. I really do. Gosh, it’s incredibly poetic in places, with a dreamlike quality to the style that means we’re not tied to the nitty-gritty banalities of life but in the higher concepts, the sensual aspects to being physical beings, and the nature of spirituality.
Our narrator is Claire, achingly, painfully in love with her best friend Ella, who loves her back but has a faery nature. They are seventeen; mired in exam preparation at school (though this aspect is touched on only lightly, to give a sense of the day-to-day world) but on the cusp of adulthood. Their group of friends cares passionately: about achievement, about loving, about music, art, the great outdoors, swimming in icy waters, and discovering what it means to feel alive.
A chance encounter with a mysterious musician named Orpheus changes them all. Other-worldly, he plays music that none of them have heard before. They are all in love with him; some in an earthly, lustful way, others in a spiritually-bonding way. But Orpheus only has eyes for Ella, and she for him – and so Claire experiences her first heartbreak, and it is intense and painful and of course she wants her friend to be happy, but she can’t help blaming herself for introducing the two of them, and if only…
The book is loosely based on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and if you know that story, then you will know how this one has to end. For me, the second half of this book was less engrossing than the first. There’s a section where the page colours are reversed – white text on black background (the reason for which you can guess if you know the legend!) – and I felt that this section, whilst being evocative, was perhaps a little too long (and also a bit tiring on the eyes). It almost felt as though the hypnotic quality was lost as the pages were turned. It might work well as a powerful performance piece – drama teachers, take note! You could use this alongside Greek tragedy! And there’s even a scene that reminded me vividly of The Bacchae, in all its gruesome glory.
In some ways, this book also reminded me of Lucas by Kevin Brooks – a book I read years ago and fell in love with. It’s about outsiders, and our treatment of them, and how difficult it is to accept something you can’t understand. And perhaps how dangerous it is to lose ourselves in others: Claire is a normal teenage girl, and yet she has invested so much of herself in Ella that without her the reader wonders: what is left?
For YA readers and anyone with an interest in strong evocative poetic storytelling with a mythic feel, A Song for Ella by David Almond is published by Hodder and out now.