Reviewed by Isobel Blackthorn
I wonder sometimes if we’ll ever tire of stories set in World War II. From Ian McEwan’s Atonement to Julie Summer’s Jambusters! and everything in between and beyond, the period makes for rich pickings. Ever Dundas’ Goblin is different. The story opens during the Blitz and is centred on a little known pet massacre, when Londoners, anxious over food shortages and concerned about bombing—pets were not allowed in shelters—voluntarily had their pets put down. An estimated 750,000 pets were destroyed in just one week.
Goblin begins in a library, with an elderly woman, a Reader in Residence, in conversation with a vagrant, Ben, occupying himself with eating the pages of books. Goblin is troubled; she’s a bit of an alcoholic, rough around the edges, self-neglecting. Old photographs, flashbacks, an enquiring Ben and a fainting fit, all bring her back to her childhood; and she decides to write down her life story in the form of a memoir.
She hadn’t washed it for days. You can tell from the photo, if you look carefully, you can tell it has lost its sparkle. I remember it sparkling red in the sun. There’s a curl matted against her forehead. The rest is messy, framing her face. You can see the wrinkles forming around her lips, beautiful perfect lines. She’s wearing lipstick, some of it straying into one of the lines. I can smell her. The warm smell of jasmine and earth, the smell of sweat and the grease that dulled her hair.
From such quirky and poignant beginnings, the narrative jump cuts to 1939, to the London Blitz, to the story of nine-year old Goblin-runt, or so her mother calls her, and her collection of real and imaginary friends. Goblin exists in a hostile environment, typical of the era and area. She plays in amongst the debris of bombed out buildings and wasteland. Her favourite haunt is Kensal Green cemetery, where she hangs out in a mausoleum. At home, her father is silent, their relationship founded on a shared interest in fixing radios; her mother hateful, cruel and dismissive, telling Goblin over and again she should never have been born. Goblin’s only ally in her family is her older brother, David, a sensitive young man and conscientious objector, a conchie, something their parents, and the community, despise.
Goblin is an urchin. She takes life’s punches and gets on with it. She’s practical, big-hearted and caring towards pets. Ultimately, she’s a survivor, escaping into her imagination for solace. She slips into a fairy tale world, her fantasies mirroring the barbaric insanities of a war torn reality. Meet Goblin’s imaginary friends, Queen Isabella, Amelia and Scholler, the lizard people inspired by HG Wells’ The Time Machine. Meet her homemade doll, Monsta, alive in so many ways.
Monsta sees me stop and sway, uncertain. Monsta’s head shakes gently, the worm arm floating to me. I’ve not to sink. There are no Devils, but there are Monstas, and the lizard people await. Gently gently Monsta climbs, encircling my neck with worm tentacles, gently gently, casting a spell of forgetfulness, forgetting the loss above, revelling in London below.
Goblin’s other world is her fortitude, her resilience, providing the reassurance, guidance and comfort all so lacking in her childhood. Real life brushes up against the imaginary through characters such as crazy old Pigeon woman, who keeps birds in her hair, and whose friendship early in the story is a harbinger of the colourful characters, and the tragedy, to follow.
Along with her dog, Devil, and her friends, Stevie and Matt, tomboy Goblin gets into endless scrapes. When the trio confront a pyre of dead pet bodies, the narrative, already bleak, turns macabre. About the same time, David is ruthlessly beaten up by a local gang of conchie haters. Devil is shot dead. Goblin is traumatised. Shortly after, she joins a child evacuation to Cornwall. Deciding boys have better lives than girls, she pretends she’s male and is taken in by a farmer and his wife.
Life in Cornwall with her second set of parents isn’t much better. Goblin eventually escapes and heads back to London to find her brother has disappeared. After a period spent busking with her pet chickens, Goblin joins the circus, garnering a third set of parents, a couple who collect ‘freaks’ and misfits and insert them into one big family. What ensues is an intriguing portrait of a young woman wracked with longing for her disappeared brother, taking the form of obsession and denial by turns.
Goblin’s quest to find her brother drives the narrative, the suspense held in place right to the last page by elderly Goblin’s refusal to talk about her past to a detective investigating an old crime. What did the old lady witness back in 1939? Old-age reticence and childhood innocence are juxtaposed, the parallels teased out, for the child in Goblin is never gone, despite or because of all she has been through.
There is much to love about this book. Written as a frame narrative, the prose is taut, rhythmic, elegant, unpretentious; the pace fast. The occasional short passages of stream of consciousness work well, I thought, as do the jump cuts from present to past, the author never failing to take the reader with her. Dundas explores her themes with exquisite sensitivity and poise; themes of trauma and grieving, survival and belonging, queer theory and love. Elements of magic realism are interwoven seamlessly into the story, and Goblin’s enduring love of animals shines through every page. The narrative never labours, never misses a beat, quickening or lingering when it needs to. There’s a twist round every corner, building to a powerful and satisfying finale.
Written from the point of view of the ‘disadvantaged,’ society’s rejects, the homeless, the elderly, the rough and ready East End poor, Goblin is a story of the fringes; it dwells in the cracks in the pavement, in underground places, in netherworlds existing in the ordinary world, in wounds, open or scarred. Normality is a side show.
Historical fiction in a literary sense, Goblin journeys inside a cultural vein, a place we would rather forget but can’t help returning to. There is no glamour, no warm fuzzy WI ladies making tea, yet the narrative is infused with warmth that comes from the author’s heart in ‘lived it, living it’ style. I am reminded of Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls and Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, with a touch of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory for seasoning. Dundas paints a portrait that is vivid, grotesque, and captivating all at once. The result, Goblin, is a book to sink into in complete trust, a story to savour like grandma’s bread pudding, crusty around the edges, spicy and soft inside, a masterpiece.
Isobel Blackthorn is a novelist and book reviewer. You can find more of her writing on her website , or find her on Twitter @IBlackthorn
Ever Dundas, Goblin (Freight Books, 2017). 978-1911332299, 272 pp., paperback original.
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