Book review: Not So Stupid! by Malorie Blackman

“The Devil seethed with fury; to be summoned in this way was galling but he had no choice.  The Book of Old had been found and the invocation spell had been executed correctly.

‘Your wish?’ he roared.

Mrs Engell, who stood before him, did not flinch.  The sight and sound and smell of the Devil was nothing compared to what she had been through in the last twenty-three years of marriage …”

(From ‘Detail’)

As a child and then as a teenager I read a lot of books by Malorie Blackman and enjoyed them all.  Her stories are exciting, her characters are genuine, and I always felt that her writing voice was speaking to me as to another adult, rather than talking down to a child.

This collection of short stories is one which will never leave my book shelf.  I’ve re-read them many times and they never get dull.  The first story – ‘Skin Tones’ – begins as an imagining of life after death in a sort of hate-filled Purgatory, and the second –‘Dad, Can I Come Home?’ – is set at the end of a futuristic outer-space war, so you quickly become accustomed to expecting the unexpected and opening your mind to the increasingly inventive stories thrown your way.

Some stories sit firmly in the realms of sci-fi, others are given over to supernatural powers, but all of them deal with a broad range of gritty human emotions, whatever the setting.  Revenge, in all its guises, is the most common theme running through the collection.  Race – an issue which the author often unflinchingly tackles in other works – is given a glancing reference in many of the stories, but racism is not dealt with as explicitly here as anyone familiar with her novels might expect.  Almost all feature an engaging female narrator or strong main female character; just one – ‘Betcham Woods’ – is narrated by a man and he, having been abandoned by his wife, becomes entranced by a beautiful woman living alone in the woods.  As you might expect, she is not what she first appears …

Having left a gap of several years since my last perusal of the collection, it struck me as it never has before that the subject matter of these stories is disturbingly stark and brutal.  War, suicide, imprisonment and murder are all dealt with over and over again.  And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the level of psychological stress the characters are exposed to.  ‘Murderous Shadows’, for example, is narrated by an unnamed woman committed to an asylum by her politically powerful lover.  According to her, she has been imprisoned because he grew to resent her superior intelligence, but having been kept in solitary confinement for many years her grip on reality appears to be wavering.  She finds consolation in her shadow, her only companion, but it is only when she sends her shadow away to do her bidding that she realises its true value.

This book clearly states that it is “teenage fiction”, which does surprise me a little, considering the complex issues the stories explore.  Despite this, I clearly haven’t been that damaged by my early exposure to such topics (any more than I was damaged by hearing tales of giants grinding bones, children abandoned in the woods by their parents, witches being burned alive, or wolves eating grandmothers), which I guess goes to show that children are a lot less fragile than is believed nowadays.

Anyhow, the sometimes shocking themes explored in Not So Stupid! are not at all graphic or gratuitous.  The stories are simply told and cleverly concluded.  I found the fact that these issues were described in quite an understated way made them even more moving.  For example, in ‘Sensitivity’ we find a harassed and sleep-deprived mother who leaves her baby outside a shop in his pram while she goes inside.  When she returns he is gone.  This story is not very long, but up until this point we have been given a brief insight into Mrs Jennings’s life, and we know that she is tired of arguing with her husband and feeling the burden of caring for a difficult child.  Now her child has been taken from her, and her mind snaps under the pressure of her disbelief, panic and “acid fear”.  Suddenly we don’t know what she is thinking; now she will only sit, unresponsive, listening to the police officers and doctors brought to her aid.  Her calm absence of tears or emotion is heartbreaking.

As a teenager these stories were unforgettable; there was something about them that spoke to me and made them more meaningful than a lot of the trashy teenage novels about.  Re-reading them as an adult, I was more deeply affected by these familiar stories than I expected to be.  The women in these stories provoke true pathos in a reader, who cannot help but be caught up in their plight.

I would be hard-pushed to choose a favourite, but the most memorable for me would have to be ‘Imagination’.  A couple, much in love, move to a new home only for their relationship slowly to disintegrate before our narrator’s eyes.  She reaches an emotional breaking point when she discovers that her partner is having an affair with their neighbour – in her bed – but is too cowed down to take any action.  She is sent on a course miles away from home; there her subconscious takes over and she wreaks her revenge … or does she?  This story is full of so much imaginative potential and leaves so many unanswered questions, which my thoughts have returned to many times over the years.

I’d certainly recommend this collection – Blackman’s first published work – to both adults and teenagers. A great read for anyone who enjoys fiction which pushes the boundaries of possibility and reality, and which isn’t afraid to explore a character’s psychological strengths or test their weak spots.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Ulysses Woodbeck
    Feb 16, 2012 @ 01:42:19

    Its like you read my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a little bit, but instead of that, this is wonderful blog. A great read. I’ll certainly be back.


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