Standish Treadwell can’t read, can’t write Standish Treadwell isn’t bright…
And so we are introduced to our loveable, dyslexic narrator, who will guide us, not through a brave new world, but through a horrifying dystopia built on lies and rot, on violence and fear. Standish Treadwell might have a naive voice, and his strangeness makes him the perfect target for bullies looking to label something ‘stupid’, but in reality he is anything but. Standish can see the bleak world that he lives in, and knows the harsh realities despite hoping against hope that things could change. It’s this hope that ultimately make him a hero, and also breaks our hearts.
Maggot Moon is one hundred short chapters. It’s an easy read time-wise, but not easy on the soul – I read late into the night to finish this, and by the end I was a little bit broken. Sally Gardner has written an excellent background to the book, and in it she includes among her inspirations, the Battle of Britan. This is fitting, because unlike many of it’s dystopian counterparts, the setting of Maggot Moon feels much more historical than futuristic. The rows of brick town houses with their cellar-road, the bleak school that Standish attends, the ramshackle gardens backing onto the mysterious and ever-growing wall, all feel borrowed from the past, and there’s something that feels inherently English about them too (although I’m not sure that that’s not just my interpretation). Gardner calls this ‘what if’ history – what if different choices had been made, our reality might be unrecognisable. She doesn’t offer a specific history though, leaving readers open to choose which dictator will influence their reading of the story. In that aspect, and many others, this book has legs, and won’t date easily.
There are definitely similarities to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Not only the setting – as Maggot Moon could easily be interpreted under the shadow of Nazi Germany – but also in the characters. Standish Treadwell has a similarly innocent tone to John Boyne’s Bruno, but without a lot of the naivety. In addition, at the core of both books is a devastating, hopeful, brother-like friendship that inspires both our young narrators to throw themselves into the heart of darkness in an attempt to save. Unlike Bruno though, who is largely unaware of what he’s throwing himself into, Standish walks into hell with his eyes wide open and fear pounding in his chest.
I would like to say that I loved this book, but I didn’t love it, it made me feel sick. It’s not a book about happiness, or a bittersweet but ultimately hopeful story of bravery and friendship, it’s about maggot lies worming their way into the world and into the minds of many, so many that nations stand blindly by as dictators commit the most horrific crimes against humanity. It’s a book that doesn’t step back from its violence or despair, that though short, is almost relentless in it’s pounding at your heart, leaving you a bit broken at the end. I can see why it has garnered so much attention, winning the 2013 Carnegie and the 2012 Costa, as well as being an honour title for the 2014 Printz Award because the writing, characters and narration are spectacularly done. I can see it in schools at every level – it would make a great comparison to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas for younger readers and then to 1984 for older ones. I can see it one shelves, i-pads and kindles on trams and buses across the world. I didn’t love it. But I’ll never forget it.