David Almond, who has become known for his haunting, sometimes surreal novels for young people (Skellig, Kit's Wilderness), returns with Clay, possibly his eeriest and most thought-provoking novel to date.

Davie and Geordie are good kids, altar boys in the small, Catholic town of Felling. The two friends make good tips when they work the altar for weddings and funerals, they only occasionally nick their fathers' cigarettes, and they usually manage to steer clear of Martin Mould, the brutal bully from the neighboring Protestant town. When Stephen Rose, an oddly intense boy with a troubled past, moves to Felling, Geordie is quick to dismiss the new boy as loony, but Davie grows more and more fascinated by Stephen's magnetic personality and by the uncannily lifelike small clay creatures he makes. When Davie discovers that Stephen has the power to bring the clay creatures to life, he is drawn into a plot that may bring revenge on Martin Mould but may also draw the town and Davie himself into a force of evil beyond anything he could have imagined. Clay is rich in Biblical and literary imagery, drawing on such stories as the creation of Adam and the birth of Frankenstein's monster. Images of the natural world are also vivid and disquieting, as when a dog is brutally mauled or a sunbathing bullfrog is devoured headfirst by a snake. Almond uses these images, as well as strong characterizations of Davie and his friends, to draw readers into the story and urge them to consider its broader philosophical questions about such topics as art, theology and the gray areas between good and evil. Almond's greatest gift, though, is couching these genuinely thought-provoking questions in a fantasy story that is compelling in its own right. Clay may at times seem fanciful and far-fetched, but that doesn't mean it doesn't hold great truths as Davie himself learns, crazy things might be the truest things of all. Norah Piehl is a freelance writer and editor in the Boston area.

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