Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond

A group of teens living in Tyneside in northern England, tired of winter's cold and wanting some freedom, decide to spend their upcoming Easter holiday camping on Bamburgh Beach in Northumberland.  Best friends Claire and Ella have been inseparable since they first met at age 5, but Ella was adopted and her parents think she spends too much time with Claire.  As the time comes closer to leave for Bamburgh Beach, Ella's parents forbid her to go, citing falling grades blamed on Claire and their friends.

Claire and the others head to the beach anyway, armed with tents, food and wine for a week.  It's there, after a few days, that a mysterious, rather otherworldly young man carrying a lyre suddenly shows up.  He says his name is Orpheus and he plays the most captivating music they have ever heard, so beautiful that even birds, seals, snakes and dolphins come near to listen to him play and sing his songs.  Wanting to share the experience with Ella, Claire calls her and holds out her phone for Ella to listen.  Orpheus and Ella speak and he ends the call by singing a song for he into the phone: "it was the song of everything, all life, all love, all creation. It was his song for my friend Ella Grey."   Though they haven't met, it is clear that Ella and Orpheus are in love with each other.

Back in school the next week, Ella is a changed person, much to Claire's unhappiness.  When Orpheus shows up outside the school, Claire leaves in the middle of class and goes out to him.  By half-term, they have decided to marry, on Bamburgh Beach, surrounded by Ella's friends.  Sadly,  two poisonous snakes are also there.

David Almond used the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as the basis for A Song for Ella Grey.  If you are familiar with this myth, you know the significance of the snakes; if you don't know this story from ancient Greece, it doesn't matter; either way you are in for a reading treat (and if you are really curious, don't skip Almond's letter to his readers for more information at the beginning of the book).

A Song for Ella Grey is narrated in the first person by Claire.  She is the one who's left behind, to tell the tale, really, to sing the tragic song of Ella Grey, to bring Ella "into the world for one last night, then let her go forever" (in ancient Greek drama, tragedy is a song).  To tell the tale of Ella, Claire makes and wears the mask of Orpheus, a device also used in Greek tragedy, in order to "let him sing his tale through me."

I read this as an ebook, so I wondered why I was seeing Chapter One, Chapter Two, etc. more than once throughout the book. When I looked at the Table of Contents, I noticed the story was divided up into 6 parts, just as Greek tragedy is.   In fact, Almond has included a number of conventions from Greek drama, including the structure of the book (there's a good paper topic for high school).
When I first began reading A Song for Ella Grey, I have to admit that I wasn't totally taken in as quickly as I have been with other David Almond books.  But now, having finished it and thought about it, I can honestly say, this is one of the best books I've read by him.  In fact, I think that Almond is one of today's most lyrical writers, and the story of Orpheus and Ella so beautifully told, the feelings of young love and yearnings is so palpable, it will perhaps remind you of your own first serious love.  And it is easy to understand why he was awarded the 2015 Guardian Children's Fiction prize.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

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