Author: Ever Dundas
Publisher: Freight Books
Year of Publication: 2017
Unearthed WWII photos compel an elderly Goblin to confront the ghosts of her past; ghosts which she has spent decades burying deep within her memory. As she prepares to face the harsh realities of her childhood and travel back to her home city of London to give evidence to the police, Goblin conjures up her early days running around London in the Blitz with Devil and Monsta, her first love Angel who she meets as an evacuee in Cornwall, her time as a street busker performing with the Lizard King and her family of abandoned animals, and her years as a circus clown travelling across Europe. It seems that wherever Goblin goes she finds yet more heartbreak and tragedy. Only her magical imaginings offer constant solace. After a lifetime of suffering in silence, is Goblin ready to relinquish her fantasies and find peace in the truth?
“Bones, doll parts, a shrew head, a camera.”
***MINOR SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW***
A rarity for me, a contemporary novel that has become an instant favourite. I gobbled this book up in a couple of sittings and fell in love with the titular Goblin who is quite unlike any protagonist I have read before. Goblin has an awareness of who she is from a young age and is never apologetic about any aspect that makes her her. Whether it’s her imaginary companions, her tall tales, or her deep love for animals and human beings of any shape or form, no matter how seemingly damaged, Goblin never compromises. She possesses a quiet, inner strength, and yet she is also completely and utterly afraid of her past and lives in constant denial of one particular truth.
The tragedies are bleak but felt natural and logical within the context of the narrative. You feel deeply for Goblin in her moments of despair, the unfairness of the situations she is forced to face. But when the moments of happiness do arrive, they shine like dazzling gems, and you really do soar alongside Goblin in her personal triumphs. There is one particular scene towards the end, which I won’t give away, that came as such delightful, joyous relief that it got me quite teary eyed.
Thematically, Goblin felt like a spiritual successor to Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (one of my all-time favourites) and the way it uses the fantastical is akin to the Guillermo del Toro film Pan’s Labyrinth. I loved it from start to finish and know I will be re-reading it again and again.
3 reasons I particularly enjoyed Goblin:
- Made me feel as if I slipped into an entire other life – At 300 pages, Goblin is a relatively short novel. Yet when I turned that final page, it seemed like its beginning was a lifetime ago, even though I had only started the book two days prior. There are very few novels that make me feel as if I’ve slipped into an entire other life in the space of its covers, as if I’ve somehow lived through years with the characters, through their ups and downs as they grow older, witnessing the times a-changin’ over the decades. Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet was certainly one, Goblin is now another.
- Magical realism that isn’t twee – Of course magical realism is meant to be enchanting, weird and extraordinary, but it can’t just be a string of pretty scenes for the sake of pretty scenes. I feel this literary genre always works best when it uses the strange and fantastical to uncover the blood and bone of us, to show the beauty and horror of what makes us gloriously flawed human beings. This was certainly how I felt the magical elements functioned in Goblin.
- Makes a point without being didactic – I was impressed with how Dundas managed to explore weighty, important themes, such as queer theory and animal rights issues, with subtlety and grace. She is clearly making a point through the novel but without it ever seeming like a boring lecture or as if the novel is simply a vehicle to promote her own personal politics.
A minor gripe: I felt that the moment of intrigue that haunts Goblin for the rest of her life is an almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. Towards the beginning, this novel chugs along at almost breakneck speed. I wish the pace would have slowed down just a notch during this critical scene to give the reader slightly more time to sit with what is clearly a traumatic event, maybe also add a little more definition to the ambiguity of the situation. As it is, I had to re-read this key paragraph or so several times to really get to grips with the full weight of it.
Read if: you enjoy weird and wonderful tales about unique characters living on the fringes of society.
Avoid if: you really can’t stomach any fantastical elements in your fiction, even if these are (probably, arguably?) wholly imaginary.