Book review

Skellig by David Almond (1998)

This is a beautiful, highly emotional story about a young lad who does an angel a good turn and who gets his reward.

The first thing you need to be clear about is that this is not your average Angel Gabriel. He's a disgusting crumpled-up heap of vermin-ridden, tramp, I suppose, who Michael finds in the far corner of their derelict garage. He actually eats the spiders that scramble across him and the mice that scuttle round the disintegrating lean-to.

I thought he was dead. He was sitting with his legs stretched out, and his head tipped back against the wall. He was covered in dust and webs like everything else and his face was thin and pale. Dead bluebottles were scattered on his hair and shoulders. I shone the torch on his white face and his black suit.

But Michael is in a highly-charged emotional state. His life is temporarily on 'hold' while his parents, and he, wait to see whether his new baby sister, born with a damaged heart, will live. In this super-sensitive state Michael and his new friend, Mina, take on the burden of care for the shrivelled creature and Skellig, for that is the name of this creature, thrives as he licks out the left-overs from Chinese take-away trays.

Because this story is written in the first person it has the power almost of a confessional:

It was already getting light when I got up and tiptoed into their room. Her cot was beside their bed. They were lying fast asleep with their arms around each other. I looked down at the baby. I slipped my hand under the covers and touched her. I could feel her heart beating fast. I could feel the thin rattle of her breath, and her chest rising and falling. I felt how hot it was in there, how soft her bones were, how tiny she was. There was a dribble of spit and milk on her neck. I wondered if she was going to die. They'd been scared about that in the hospital. Before they let her come home she'd been in a glass case with tubes and wires sticking in her and we'd stood around staring in like she was in a fish tank.
I took my hand away and tucked the covers around her again. Her face was dead white and her hair was dead black. They'd told me I had to keep praying for her but I didn't know what to pray.
'Hurry up and get strong if you're going to,' I whispered.

In fact, Michael is in as much need of healing as his baby sister, and in return for the gentle care and concern which Michael has shown towards Skellig, Skellig is able to help the quietly desperate family.

Is Skellig an angel? He undoubtedly has the form of an angel. As he thrives under the care of Michael and Mina his wings unfold and his face becomes young and beautiful. Though he still lives on just the food which is brought to him:

When he smiled at me I caught the stench of his breath, the stench of the things the owls had given him to eat. I gagged. His breath was the breath of an animal that lives on the meat of other living things; a dog, a fox, a blackbird, an owl. He squeezed me again and smiled again.

But perhaps that is the key to his identity. Perhaps Skellig exists solely on the kindnesses that are shown to him. Taking a disgusting form which most of us would recoil from he can recognize and repay kindness which is shown to him. So he will eat Michael's Chinese take-aways with as much relish as the mice that the owls bring to him.

'Can love help a person to get better?' Michael asks of Doctor MacNabola at the hospital. Well, I think he's got to the core of the issue there.

What can I read next?

David Almond has written three other books like this:

There is also a transformation in this new book by Susan Price. I think it is for moderately mature readers:

You might be interested in this classic by Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

Or this story by Dirk Walbrecker deals with a complete metamorphosis!:

One more suggestion! You could look at Jonathan Stroud's new book:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

Skellig features in these lists: