Curriculum Vital

    Half a Creature from the Sea
    A Life in Stories

    By David Almond

    In his introduction to a recent Dylan Thomas anthology, the Welsh poet Owen Sheers described his country’s most famous verse writer as ‘a poet of the sea.’ Thomas’ water was Swansea Bay. For David Almond, an equally aquatic children’s and young adult writer, the water is that of the North Sea, ‘sometimes brilliant blue, and sometimes almost black… a sea so wide you could see the curve of the Earth upon it,’ he writes in this intriguing and mysterious collection of stories. Like the ubiquitous body of water, Half a Creature from the Sea is nourishing, fulfilling and a little bit frightening.

    I have to first confess a slight bias. I was born in Stockton-on-Tees, 34 miles down the A1 from Almond’s hometown of Felling-on-Tyne, in and around which the stories are set. (You could also take the A19: we northerners love a good debate about the best route.) Like many of the children in this homage to childhood, I swam in that freezing sea (and now, like Almond, prefer to wade, or just admire from a distance). Like the children in ‘Harry Miller’s Run’, I have completed the Junior Great North Run and savoured ice cream on rare scorching afternoons. Like Almond, I regularly attended church as a boy; and like the young narrator of ‘Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist’, I experienced lasting moments of spiritual disillusionment.

    Religion and spirituality are common themes in the eight stories of this marvellous volume. At first Almond leaves his own allegiance to the reader’s imagination; the story ‘When God Came to Visit Cathleen’s Garden’, for example, is followed by ‘The Missing Link’. It’s only with the aforementioned tale about a poltergeist that Almond takes the plunge (as it were) into the murky and icy waters of religious dogma. The results are often emotionally bleak, but occasionally priceless:

    “Father?” I say.
    “I think I’m starting to believe in things I shouldn’t.”
    “Protestantism?” he says.

    For every passage that rubbishes the idea of revealed religion, Almond offers many others that hint strongly at the presence of something greater than mere flesh and atoms. The narrators of these short and numinous stories are often moved by distant voices from the past, moments of uncanny serendipity or faint traces of phantom interference. Almond introduces each story with some biographical notes, but then takes a back seat and allows the narration to prompt its own questions.

    Theism and deism, though, are just two parts of a broader theme. The real message of the book is that our planet, even a small stretch of the River Tyne, is unconquerably and wonderfully complex: ‘[T]he world and all that’s in it will continue to hum and sing, to shake and shine, to hold us in its darkness and its light.' And whether you consider it Christianity or just the instinct of a primate, the important thing, the stories tell us, is that we should listen to each other and cherish human solidarity.

    ‘We are in the north,’ writes the narrator of the title tale. ‘It is very beautiful.’ Not grim, you ask? Not a bit of it.

    Related products and pages:

    The Boy Who Swam With Piranhas, by David Almond

    Girl With a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier

    Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell