Fish Boy by Chloe Daykin

The Blurb On The Back:

People call me Fish Boy. My skin goes up and down like the waves. My mind goes in and out like the sea. They say I’ve always got my mouth open, but what’s wrong with that? 

Billy is obsessed with swimming in the sea, which is where he goes to wash his problems far, far away. Thanks to his mum’s mystery illness, his dad has ben forced to work extra hours to make ends meet, so Billy is often left to his own devices. Meanwhile at school, bullies mercilessly seize on Billy’s ‘otherness’ and make his life as miserable as possible – but then new boy Patrick Green, with “fingers like steel, strength of a bear” joins Billy’s class. And a mackerel swims up to Billy’s face, blows bubbles into his Vista Clear Mask goggles and says: Fish Boy.

And Billy’s whole world changes. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

12-year-old Billy Shiel loves seawater swimming and nature programmes (especially those hosted by Sir David Attenborough). Bullied at school by Jamie Watts and his cronies (who steal his things and call him Fish Boy), he doesn’t have any friends and at home he’s mainly left to his own devices as his mum is bed-ridden with a mystery illness and his dad’s having to work extra hours to pay the bills.

When a mackerel swims up to him in the sea and starts talking to him he has no idea what it wants or how to respond. Soon afterwards a new boy called Patrick Green transfers to his school who has “fingers like steel”, a love of magic tricks and the ability to deal with Jamie so that he leaves Billy alone but Billy’s never had a friend before, well, no one apart from Sir David Attenborough …

Chloe Daykin’s debut children’s novel is a smart, emotionally intelligent read with a magical realist feel and strong themes about belonging and the difficulties of living with someone with a chronic illness that has great illustrations by Richard Jones, which is perfect for children aged 10+. Billy has a great narrative voice – by turns frightened, warm and funny – I really enjoyed the scenes where he imagines Attenborough’s commentary on his situation as Daykin captures him perfectly (so much so that I wondered how many of his lines actually came from real nature shows). Also good is the friendship with Patrick, who’s gift for magic and ability to make friends with anyone, only serves to feed Billy’s insecurities (with Daykin doing a good job at how his fears also help to keep him separate from and suspicious of his classmates). The scenes with the mackerel (helped by Jones’s illustrations) convey a great love of nature and the need to belong but the staccato delivery with its broken sentences and use of Hungarian words threw me out at times and I wondered if younger readers would be able to follow it. I was also unconvinced by the scenes with Billy’s mother – I believed that she was sick and in the reaction of Billy and her father to it but the link to M.E. didn’t really seem to fit into the story and it could have been any illness. That said there’s a lot here to admire and I would definitely check out Daykin’s next book.

FISH BOY will be released in the United Kingdom on 2nd March 2017. Thanks to Faber & Faber for the ARC of this book.

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