Book review

Greg by Dirk Walbrecker (1999)

Have you ever had that feeling that you're not quite sure where you fit in? You're not exactly a child any more, so you don't do kids' things. You're not really an adult, although you wouldn't mind having a go at some grown-up things. And everyone else in your class, and especially your older brother, seems to be managing much better than you are. In fact, sometimes you feel as though you're doing so badly you hardly belong to the human race at all!

That's how Greg feels. His family have recently moved to a new district, and on the new school bus there's a girl called Sara. Greg catches her eye and they exchange a few glances, but his brother, Ben, casually falls into conversation with her, laughing and joking. Ben sits with Sara on the bus while Greg skulks at the back. Greg still thinks Sara might be looking at him more than his brother, but Ben is outshining him.

So Greg doesn't seem terribly concerned when he wakes up one morning to discover that he has actually turned into a caterpillar. Let's face it, he's been feeling as if he might as well be one for some time:

Then Greg made another surprising discovery: somewhere around the place where he didn't have arms, things were moving all the same. Not just two of them, but six! They were short and they had no joints, but he could move them: not singly, only in pairs. They were nothing like as - well, as handy as hands, but they obviously had their uses. And the harder Greg concentrated on these new physical sensations, the more discoveries he made. There were several movable items down on the lower part of his long body too - rather short, stumpy excrescences arranged in pairs, two of them at the very far end.
Greg tried counting, but he wasn't sure: sometimes he thought he had twelve of these excrescences, another time he made it as many as sixteen.
Then he gave up counting, because other things were happening in the house. The front door slammed twice in quick succession. Footsteps hurried up the stairs, and he heard the door handle being rattled.
'Greg, do wake up! What's the matter? You never usually lock your door! Open it this minute!'
This was getting complicated. Look at it one way, and Greg was feeling quite at home in his peculiar new physical state. Look at it another, and he was in real trouble with his mother.

Well, everyone in the family has to learn how to live with the fact that Greg has turned into a rather obnoxious lump with strange personal habits. His mother tries to be understanding, and brings him lots of lovely vegetables, his favourite food. His father wavers between sympathy and downright disgust. Ben thinks it's hilarious, most of the time, except when he has to muck out Greg's room!

It's really a story within a story. You will have to read the book to find out how Greg the caterpillar becomes a TV personality, and how he becomes the subject of some rather suspect genetic research. But that is really all just playing around with the caterpillar idea. The other part of the story is how Greg overcomes his terrible self-consciousness sufficiently to talk to Sara himself, at which point he manages to resume his human shape once more. Welcome back to the human race, Greg!

This story has been told before. About one hundred years ago Franz Kafka wrote a short story for adults called Metamorphosis. In that story a young man, also called Gregor, woke up one morning to find that he had turned into a gigantic insect:

He was lying on his hard, as it were armour-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed-quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

Unlike Greg the caterpillar, though, this Gregor takes no pleasure in his insect form. In fact, he never overcomes his feelings of alienation from the rest of the human race and eventually dies a sad and lonely death.

I think you'll enjoy Greg by Dirk Walbrecker. It's a neatly-told story, and really quite funny. If you're interested, and if you are an older reader, you might like to compare it with Kafka's Metamorphosis. See how the two authors use the same basic ideas to come up with two completely different stories.

What can I read next?

If you think it's fun turning into a caterpillar, you should read Alice, if you haven't already. By Lewis Carroll:

And for a different kind of metamorphosis you could look at this one by Hans Magnus Enzensberger:

Or, if you just fancy a bit of a laugh, have a look at this one by Robert Leeson:

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