Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Latest from Leonie Agnew

The Impossible Boy by Leonie Agnew, Penguin Random House NZ

Award-winning Leonie Agnew’s previous two junior fiction titles were Super Finn and Conrad Cooper’s Last Stand. This new story is so different to the first two that I asked Leonie about its origins. Interestingly, it is already an award-winning story, having won a prize presented by British publisher David Fickling Books, called the 2015 Master of the Inkpot. There were over 1000 entries specifically from authors working without agents.

Leonie’s previous two titles are generally known as humorous stories – but it might be better to call them serious stories wrapped up in a humorous exterior. The Impossible Boy combines several dramatic themes but without the sugar coating. It’s a tough story which required a big leap of imagination. Leonie herself believes that it’s not suitable for readers of Year 5 and below – but says she has had good responses from students of Year 6 and upwards.

The impossible boy, Vincent Gum, is the invisible companion of a 6-year-old lost child named Benjamin Grey – only Ben can see Vincent. The boys are wandering in an unidentified war-torn city.

Vincent takes Ben to shelter in an orphanage, but stays with him to ensure his safety. Ben comes under the protection of a group of orphans who teach him survival skills, but nobody except Vincent can protect him against the nightmarish Hanger Man who lives in the closet. As the plot develops and the children fight to stay alive, reality and non-reality swirl together – the question “Who is Vincent?” becomes predominant, and readers need to piece together the clues to produce their own interpretations.

There are definite allegorical elements in the story. The devastated city where the children live has to be representative of any war-ravaged city. Syria comes to mind, but the city is not obviously middle-eastern. The children are the same as children anywhere, getting through their lives as best they can. Vincent, the invisible boy, is more than just a traditional imaginary friend – he’s an entity called into physical existence by Ben. In one challenging part of the story, Vincent is denied by Ben and finds himself helplessly sucked back inside Ben’s brain, only to emerge later when the monstrous Hanger Man must be defeated. Surely this is an allegorical look at the power of human imagination and determination. As for the Hanger Man himself – he is representative of a million childish nightmares, the ultimate monster in a million closets.

When I asked about the inspirations for this story, Leonie said she actually wrote the first draft of the book before Super Finn was published. The complete story came to her about seven years ago, one Christmas morning after she’d been to mass the evening before. But she also believes the inspiration came from many sources – books about the power of faith, movies about the power of imagination, ponderings on the foundations of religion. Interested adults and keen young readers will find this book riveting, challenging, startling - and ultimately inspiring.  It will haunt readers for a long time, and I’m sure we’ll hear a lot more about it. 

ISBN 978 0 14 330906 2 RRP 19.99 Pb (also available as an e-book)

Reviewed by Lorraine Orman

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