Source: ARC from Netgalley
Published by: Hachette Children’s Books
Released: 2nd October 2014
Buy it from: Hive
In a nutshell: A Song for Ella Grey is…
A tragedy of style over substance. The haunting and poetic writing style isn’t enough to make up for one-dimensional characters and an opaque plot.
The blurb says that A Song for Ella Grey is inspired by the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, but I’d say it’s more of a straight retelling. David Almond’s version transplants the lovers from ancient Greece to modern day North East England. The story is told through the eyes of Claire, best friend of the eponymous Ella/Eurydice and unwitting instigator of the acts that follow.
I’m the one who’s left behind. I’m the one to tell the tale. I knew them both, knew how they lived and how they died.
I was disappointed by this book. After a good start, it seemed to descend into a mass of confused, self-indulgent sentimentality and repetition. Some readers have argued that this is deliberate, to create a dreamlike quality. Maybe I just have no poetry in my soul because after the sixth or seventh description of the behaviour of the seagulls and the glint of light on the pebbles, I just wanted to scream!
The main characters, Clare, Ella and Orpheus, are very flat. They’re more like puppets than real characters with thoughts and motivations. They’re pieces that David Almond moves around in time with the plot, with little regard for whether their actions make sense for them. Ella is just a dreamy, naive yes-girl. Orpheus is described more as a force of nature than a human, and Claire is reduced to little more than a chorus with a crush – on Ella.
But the thing that annoyed me most about this book was that it was billed as “inspired by” the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Now, to my mind, that should mean that while it may use elements, or even large chunks of the parent story, it should still work as a standalone narrative in its own right. This really doesn’t. I wasn’t familiar with the Greek tale before I read the book ad there was so much that seemed odd, jarring or just plain didn’t make sense. There’s a huge event near the end that seems totally bizarre and out of place if you don’t know the original story.
I know that this is intended to have an epic, stylised feel. But if it relies so heavily on familiarity with the source material then you need to tell you readers that in advance, not leave them to struggle.
Students of Greek myth who’d like to explore a unique re-telling. But if you don’t want to get completel lost, you must read the source story first.