Every so often a debut novel comes along which confounds your expectations and enchants your sensibilities, making you marvel at a writer who manages to get it so right first time out. David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device is once such book from earlier this year, and, against most odds, it as happened once again with Ever Dundas’ Goblin.
It’s a novel full of surprises, and which takes you in unexpected directions. After a few chapters I had it pegged as an urban fantasy similar to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, China Mieville’s King Rat, or even Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, with the young central character, the titular ‘Goblin’, making her way in a Blitz-torn London with various characters and creatures as her eccentric support group – a coterie of Devils, lizards and Monstas. As she gets older and her world gets bigger, Goblin becomes a different novel altogether, more reminiscent of Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, following Goblin as she becomes a young woman, discovering more about herself and others as her experiences accumulate.
The literary references in the book are deliberate and pointed. Goblin and her friends become obsessed with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and The War Of The Worlds, as well as Frankenstein. These texts provide parables with which they can try to make sense of a crazy world. This is a time and place where the threat of Nazis and their bombs are all too real. It’s not surprising that children would deal with this by equating their threat with what they read in books, and as they play among the rubble thoughts of Morlocks and Martian Fighting Machines are probably less disturbing than the awful truth.
As a result of her ability to bring magic to the everyday, something she carries with her throughout her life, Goblin’s world is one in which you can happily get lost, making close acquaintances with fish boys and Glitter Queens, pigeons, pigs and elephants. Goblin is no wide-eyed innocent – she has an innate sense of who she can trust and who to be wary of, perhaps why she often prefers the company of animals to humans, and why she will protect and defend them fiercely. It’s interesting and apt to note that the philosopher Nietzsche gets a mention in the ‘Acknowledgments’ as there is a story about how he risked his life to protect a horse who was being beaten in the street, an act of kindness of which Goblin would approve.
Goblin also deals with memory and how events which happen in childhood can shape the rest of your life. When we first meet Goblin it is as an elderly woman working in an Edinburgh library, watching patrons devour books – literally. Photographs from her childhood come back to haunt her, forcing her to remember people and places she has long forgotten for her own peace of mind. As the novel progresses we jump in time between 2011 and Goblin’s past. It’s a clever device as we are more likely to accept the younger Goblin as an ‘old soul’, whose world view is more complex than we might expect from a child, having already met her in later life.
Perhaps the central theme of the novel is respect. Goblin treats everyone she meets, human and animal, as an individual and equal until they prove to be otherwise. Although mostly set in the middle of the 20th century, it is a thoroughly modern novel, confronting notions of gender, identity, sexuality, family, animal rights, and so much more. I’m often asked to recommend titles for young adults, and this has gone straight in at number one on that list. It’s a book which should be read as widely as possible as it has at its heart the same kindness and compassion as its central character, attributes which are underrated in fiction.
With Goblin Ever Dundas has written an indelible and haunting novel, one which will take you back to your own childhood and the stories you told yourself to try to make sense of an often mystifying world. But what is really impressive is how skilful, and daring, the writing is. Where many would feel the need to signpost every plot twist and point made, Dundas makes the reader work and wait, refusing to give up Goblin’s secrets cheaply; the full picture slowly developing as the other stories are told. Goblin is utterly enchanting in every sense, and reveals Ever Dundas as a talent to treasure.