On Tuesday, the Nosy Crow Book Group (20 of us – four of us part of Nosy Crow) met in Nosy Crow’s meeting room to talk about debut novelist S. E. Durrant’s first book, Little Bits of Sky, which publishes on 5 May.
It’s always a nerve-racking thing to do, being party to a discussion about a Nosy Crow book, and we don’t do it often – maybe three or four times in total in the nearly three years we’ve been running the group. The book’s editor, Kirsty Stansfield, couldn’t quite face being there, but the rest of us were bolder. The challenge is that we are so invested in any book that we are publishing that it’s ridiculously hard not to rush to its defence at the merest whisper of criticism.
I think we needn’t have worried about Little Bits of Sky. Of course, as the hosts of the Book Group, we know that people are maybe going to pull their punches a bit, but the feeling was universally positive.
Before I go further, though, I should say that this blog post contains plot spoilers, so if you think you’ll want to read Little Bits of Sky, and like to keep surprise an element of your reading, look away now.
As I say, all of the group really liked the book, and many of us said they “loved it” and spoke of the feeling of warmth it had given them. They spoke of how accessible it was (an “effortless” read), and of how they’d read it in one or two sittings. They talked of how much they’d liked the child characters, central and peripheral, and how important to their enjoyment of the book the “honesty and simplicity” of Ira’s voice had been. The authenticity of the voice was commented on by several people, one of whom currently works with children in care, and one of whom asked if it was the author’s own story (it isn’t).
People picked out moments they had particularly loved, or that had particularly moved them – the moment when Ira gets a key-ring in a Christmas cracker while she is in residential care, and says she will keep it until she has a home of her own, or the moment when Ira says her favourite meal is fish and chips, but she hasn’t had fish and chips yet, so it’s her favourite for the future. Several people spoke of “wet eyes” and lumps in their throat (and I must confess that I am sitting writing this with tears dripping onto the desk as I am looking for various references).
We talked about the fact that this was much more voice-driven than narrative-driven: this is an episodic book with, as one reader described it “snippets of a world and glimpses of the people who inhabit that world” and another described as “simple, powerful sketches”, in which not a huge amount happens. But the very lack of a clear narrative shape was what made many of us feel the book felt authentic.
There was real debate about the value of the introduction and the epilogue. These are contemporary bookends to a story that is set in the eighties and nineties, told from the perspective of Ira as an adult. Some readers felt that they weren’t necessary, that they offered too much sense of resolution or that they were too separate from the rest of the book. Others really liked the framing device and the perspective it gave on the story. We talked about tense and about the construct of the diary – in the introduction, the adult Ira says she has “reconstructed” the story from the diaries she kept as a child. We talked about the importance of the historical setting. Some of us felt that the poll tax riots were rather obscure and recent to have as a central part of the story, but one of the teachers in the group commented that we shouldn’t assume that children have any more sense of, say, the Second World War, than they would have of the poll tax riots: it’s all history, all before they were alive, and all equally opaque. We all recognised the importance of the events at the poll tax riots as a gear-changing mechanism in the book: they precipitate the key event of the book.
We talked about the characterisation of the adults. A couple of us felt that Mrs Clanks was too cartoonish, but others felt that she was believable and very credibly seen though a child’s less nuanced eyes. A conversation about how Hortense and Silas were portrayed led to an interesting conversation about race and the book. We never know what Ira and Zac look like, and this was something that the author was keen to keep unstated. Generally, we liked the “Everyman” quality that this gave the narrative, but one reader felt that, if Ira and Zac had been, for example, black or mixed-race, this would have impacted in multiple ways on their lives and it wasn’t right to suggest that race wasn’t of enough importance for it to be clear.
We talked about reading this as an adult – and many of us talked about the way that we had felt “grown-up” reading it, rather than trying to read it as we think a child would read it. A couple of us spoke about how it made us feel protective, or even made us want to adopt or foster (“It made me wish I had a house in the country so I could be like Martha.”). We agreed, though, that though this book does have strong adult appeal, it’s not to the exclusion of child appeal. It has the same sort of attraction that other books about children in difficult situations have to readers who don’t, perhaps, themselves face such difficult situations – I’ve called this “pain by proxy”: children can experience an intensity of emotion their own lives don’t afford. It’s the driver behind the appeal of Tracey Beaker, Wonder, Goodnight Mr Tom and Carrie’s War, all of which, together with Daddy Long-Legs, readers said Little Bits of Sky reminded them.
This is a book that we love, and we were hugely relieved that it had weathered its first outing into the real world of readers so well.
If you weren’t at our reading group, you can take a look inside Little Bits of Sky below – and if you’d like to join us at a future reading group event, email [email protected] and we’ll add you to our reading group mailing list.