At last Moontrug feels it’s time to write about Tom Avery’s book, My Brother’s Shadow. She’s put it off for a while now – not because it was boring, not because it was badly written – but because she was so profoundly moved by it that she had to spend a few weeks just thinking about its strange, subtle magic. Because that’s the way it is with some books. They strike a cord somewhere deep inside you and you spend weeks after mesmerised by that magic. And that’s how it was with My Brother’s Shadow.
My Brother’s Shadow is Kaia’s story. Her world of books, friends and laughter is shattered the day she comes home to find her brother dead. Something inside Kaia hardens until gradually she finds herself totally alone. Friends drift, teachers become impatient and her mother’s erratic behaviour leaves her frightened and desperate. Kaia freezes up inside and only when a mysterious boy appears at the window of her classroom, do things start to change.
My Brother’s Shadow reminded Moontrug of Patrick Ness’ brilliant book, A Monster Calls. Avery relates the aching process of coming to terms with loss just as acutely (and subtly) as Ness does. With Avery, Kaia’s inner pain is manifested in the wild boy’s actions: ‘He was really wild. Whilst I dream of leaping on tables, he did it, howling at the ceiling. When the class cackled at one of Mr Wills’ stupid jokes, the boy looked around perplexed then clapped and barked out an imitation of a laugh. He tore books apart, chewed at pencils, bolted in and out of the classroom.’ But amidst this pain, there is a sense of hope, beauty and wonder in both Ness’ and Avery’s writing. Avery’s references to the renewing power of nature – to the wonderfulness of trees, sunflowers and daffodils – are a constant reminder that although the human spirit may be crushed to breaking point, there is hope and strength somewhere deep inside us all. It reminded Moontrug of a wise Anglo-Saxon saying her mother often tells her when things get tough: ‘Let the spirit grow stronger, courage the greater, will the more resolute, as the strength grows less.’
Kaia is such an engaging character. Her mind works in brilliant, original ways, like David Almond’s wonderful Mina. Kaia knows ‘it’s rude to stare’ but when she notices the ‘amazing, unique, miraculous’ people in the world, she asks us how can we not just stare and marvel at ‘every single stupendous one of them.’ Kaia’s way of thinking is captivating and Moontrug would love to amble along inside her mind, to see the world like she does, to run on silent feet, to soar through blue skies with wild animals… Because, as Kaia says, ‘wild thoughts are what make us feel alive.’
The ‘relationship’ between Kaia and the wild boy is beautifully told: ‘…he’s there with me. We trot together. Tears run as silent as the boy’s footfall. We do not speak. We walk.’ Avery captures the subtle magic of the wild boy’s role so perfectly, gradually releasing Kaia towards a thawing, a freedom from all that’s happened: ‘Finally, with a second wail, despair in its voice, the building falls in on itself. A great cloud of dust rises into the air. We shield our eyes. When it settles we’re all that’s left: us and the tree against our backs. I laugh, not at the destruction, but at the freedom.’ Kaia develops a wisdom more important, more lasting, than algebra and descriptions of imaginary trainers, and Avery very realistically shows how it is sometimes in grief that we find out who we really are.
Perhaps one of the things Avery does best is to capture Kaia’s moments of triumph. Her Special Achiever Award is brilliantly done – and Kaia’s reaction so painfully real. And like Kaia’s class, Moontrug read her book review with tears streaming down her face. My Brother’s Shadow is a heart-breakingly good book for 9+ years, so good that it’s made its way onto Moontrug’s Altocumulus Tower…