I’ve been thinking for a long time whether I should discuss Jenny Davidson’s first YA novel, The Explosionist, which has been receiving wonderful reviews from bloggers, a great deal of which is deserved. You can check out a list of these at the Explosionist blog, and I suggest starting with Colleen Mondor’s, which will tell you all the good things you need to know.
I wanted to like this novel very much indeed. Though I don’t know her personally, Jenny Davidson and I email from time, and she has been very kind and supportive of me, so it seems particularly churlish to say I was disappointed in the novel, but I feel that falsifying my reactions is doing her, and YA writers altogether, a disservice.
The Explosionist shows Davidson’s fine style, her genuine skill with language. I can easily overlook the occasional infelicity (‘bloodcurdling cry’ or ‘It had to be a trick of the light’) for such delights as ‘ . . . a soft gray cardigan she had reclaimed from the rubbish after Peggy pronounced a verdict of moth.’ The details of the novel’s alternate history – Napoleon wins at Waterloo – are complex, fascinating, quirky, and often fun, though some don’t seem particularly relevant, which however they may yet prove to be, since this is only the first of two volumes. And the plot twists and unexpected revelations are enjoyable, unless you’re irritated by this sort of thing. So what don’t I like?
First of all, I’m put off by the ‘classroom lecture device’. It’s fine to use a teacher’s lesson to introduce background information, but this is a technique which must be wielded sparingly in order not to become tedious and info-dumpy. Even this, however, I could forgive if it weren’t for a flaw I consider far more serious, one which is central to the novel as a whole; a flaw I’m forced to call a failure of imagination – nothing feels the way living under constant pressure from warfare and terrorism ought to feel. The characters talk plenty about it yet it remains unconvincing, and therefore, ultimately disengaging. Naturally, even in wartime people continue with their routines (and the horror in itself can become routine), and Sophie has led a fairly sheltered, genteel boarding-school life, but the novel lacks the right emotional, and even social, resonance. It reads as though Davidson’s energy has gone into style, into lovingly portrayed details, without deeply imagining the very heart of her premise. Sophie is an endearing character, yet not an entirely ‘real’ one. Too often she seems like a mouthpiece for Davidson herself:
“The horrible thing,” Sophie said to Nan as they hurriedly dried themselves and put on their pajamas, “is that we’re being forced to choose now about things that really should be able to wait till we’re older. It’s hard to say what’s worse, the suddenness of having to choose or the chance that if we don’t make up our minds soon, the choice will be taken away from us altogether.”
So while I would certainly recommend The Explosionist as a very competent novel, it’s not a particularly deep or insightful one. Should you read it? Of course – it’s still great fun!