Sunday, May 01, 2011

Stig of the Dump

Just started reading (to the boys):
Stig of the Dump
One word: brilliant. Here's the first paragraph of the first chapter.
If you went too near the edge of the chalk-pit the ground would give way. Barney had been told this often enough. Everybody had told him. His grandmother, every time he came to stay with her. His sister, every time she wasn't telling him something else. Barney had a feeling, somewhere in his middle, that it was probably true about the ground giving way. But still, there was a difference between being told and seeing it happen. And today was one of those grey days when there was nothing to do, nothing to play, and nowhere to go, Except to the chalk-pit. The dump.
I challenge anyone to resist reading on after such an enchanting start. And read on we did, enchanted, all the way to the end of chapter. The only sad part is this enjoyable experience will be over far too soon: Stig of the Dump only has nine chapters.

Update (10 May 2011): Well, it started brilliantly. The prose is consistently good, but a chapter or two into the book and the plot has literally thickened to the consistency of molasses. The boys are getting bored, I can tell. And your intrepid narrator certaintly is. We're somewhere in the third chapter at the moment. The best children's writing should follow at least three of Dahl's 4 Laws: "It's got to be exciting, it's got to be fast, it's got to have a good plot, but it's got to be funny." Dahl's books are all funny (or at least, meant to be) in a way that Clive King's Stig of the Dump is not. So it has to satisfy all three of the other laws. And sadly, so far, it doesn't. But we'll press on. Perhaps the tide will turn. Or we'll get fossilised in the molasses. One or the other.

Update 2.0 (16 June 2011): We finally finished Stig of the Dump. My final verdict is: It doesn't work, it is less than the sum of its parts. The book's main problem is the plot, or more accurately the lack of one. The story veers from chapter to chapter in disjointed fashion and many of the episodes just don't seem to make sense. I get it that the story is deliberately told in such a way as to leave it unclear whether the events being narrated actually happened or were just a bored youngster's daydreams. But still: a reader is entitled to a certain amount of consistency and narrative logic. Sad, for a book that started so well.

And then there is the depiction of Stig and, later on, Stig's tribe. For instance, here's how King describes Barney's first encounter with Stig after falling into the cave in the chalk-pit (the eponymous "dump") where Stig lived:
He lay quiet and looked around the cave again. Now that his eyes were used to it he could see further into the dark part of the cave.

There was somebody there!

Or Something!

Something, or Somebody, had a lot of shaggy black hair and two bright black eyes that were looking very hard at Barney.

'Hallo!' said Barney.

Something said nothing.

'I fell down the cliff,' said Barney.

Somebody grunted.

'My name's Barney.'

Somebody-Something made a noise that sounded like 'Stig'.
And on and on it goes throughout the rest of book: Stig is simply unable to speak. He only grunts, makes noises, and does hand gestures. Even his name, "Stig", isn't really his name at all. It's just a word that sounded like the noise he made after Barney introduced himself. Understandable, you may think, if you consider the fact that Stig is supposed to be a Stone Age man. And Barney is supposed to a 20th Century boy. A fair point, until you read a statement made by Barney much later on in the book when he says "There aren't any savages in England." Quite. But plenty outside England, presumably? What exactly is a child supposed to make of such ideas?

My overall recommendation for Stig of the Dump is: dump it.

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