Keith Gray's novel -- first published in the U.K. in 2009 -- tells the story of three young men from Cleethorpes on the east coast of England: Blake, Sim and Kenny. They are mourning the death of their friend Ross, who was killed while riding his bicycle to school. Ross' service was a joke, they think, and people aren't mourning him properly, so the boys engage in a little juvenile delinquency by spray-painting the houses of several people they hold responsible for his death. Then Blake -- who is narrating the novel -- gets a brainwave: They'll take Ross to Ross! He always said he wanted to go. Ross is a dot on the map just north of England's border with Scotland, near Kirkcudbright (pronounced kir-COO-bray, which comes up in the novel) and Blake figures it will just take them a day to get there and a day to get back. In a desperate move, the boys liberate Ross' ashes right out from under his grieving family and make a dash for the train station.
And, things go wrong from there, naturally. The boys have to change trains quickly and Kenny, the dim one, leaves behind his bag -- the one with his ticket and all their money. They get tossed off the train and find themselves in the back of a rather dicey taxicab that will take them to Blackpool. They need more money for Kenny's train ticket, so Blake -- the fat one -- agrees to bungee jump for cash. They learn the police are after them because everyone in Cleethorpes is concerned that they are planning on killing themselves ... in imitation of Ross. They don't believe that their best friend did kill himself, but this is a journey of discovery and soon they are facing truths about their friendship with Ross they'd be happy not to ever acknowledge.
There's nothing surprising here, although I did appreciate the fact that the title wasn't actually referenced in the book; the author respects his readers enough to get it. (My post title does need explanation: Sim, the angry one, has a love of collective nouns, and one of the collective nouns for ostriches is a wobble. Who knew?) The journey is an entertaining mix of adventure (bungee jumping, haunted abandoned farm house complete with legend of a beheaded girl, escape via moped) and authentic sounding teen banter, with all the bickering and emotional yo-yoing that entails. The end is bittersweet (naturally), but I also felt good about the boys and how they would go on without Ross.
A new-to-me narrator, Bruce Mann, reads the novel. He has an oddly high, thin voice that's really different from the mostly resonant men I'm used to listening to. But it works for these teenaged boys; while he knows how to speak in their ebullient riffs and rhythms, they all sound just a little bit lost and lonely in Mann's interpretation. Since it's Blake telling us this story, Mann gives me a crystal clear picture of the intelligent, but shy boy he is. The stresses of the journey really begin to tell on Blake, and Mann's voice reflects this.
He does a good job of differentiating between the three boys, and I just believe that the accents are accurate to that particular corner of England. When the novel arrives in Scotland and our boys meet three comely Scots lassies, Mann rises ably to the burr (and helps us pronounce Kirkcudbright correctly).
Trolling the internet tells me that a theatre company commissioned a play of the novel which had a brief run this summer. This is good! "Children's theatre" often seems so focused on cultivating younger audience members -- witness the dreck on offer (well, not all of it is dreck ... and [digression] doesn't Lonnie Motion look a little old?) from a local company -- when in fact, it's teens who can benefit most from learning that live theatre performance can be for them.
[Perhaps Blake looked like this as he jumped off the platform in Blackpool. This photograph was taken by Ellywa and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]
Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray
Narrated by Bruce Mann
Listening Library, 2010. 6:10