Janey's mum tells us a story and we listen with our eyes shut. We've heard it before but we don't say because we're trying to give her a boost. It's the story of one day when she was fishing here with Janey's dad – way back before Janey was born – knee deep in the sea at the end of a hot summer afternoon. An old man was walking slowly along higher up the beach, followed by his little dog. The dog stopped to sniff something and the man got ahead, when suddenly the cliff slid and crumpled and massive chunks of rock thudded onto the beach; the old man turned half-unseen through the dust and stood quite still until at last the dog trotted out of the yellow cloud as if nothing was the matter.
This time when she tells the story I think: maybe they're both dead by now anyway, but I can still see that man and his dog walking out of that dust cloud on a perfect summer beach.
Incidents in novels that don't apparently advance the plot can often tell you a lot about what the author is really doing, aside from telling a story (and by the way this novel is on one level a cracking mystery/detective story that moves at a fair pace and keeps the reader wondering and guessing for a long time). In the passage above we have children taking emotional care of an adult, rather than the other way around, a potentially fatal danger coming almost literally out of a clear sky and a vision of two who may physically be dead but who live in imagination.
The imagination of an eleven-year-old, and here we come to a key feature of the novel: we have a first-person narrator who is eleven when the book begins and twelve when it ends. Nor does he write in a "looking back on childhood" way but in the present tense, in a voice which convinces throughout; I can literally think of only one moment when he didn't sound his age, and then only for the space of 7 words, which is a considerable achievement. The question is, does this make the book one aimed at children or YA readers, as many will assume simply because it has a child protagonist/narrator?
I think not, though an intelligent pre-teen or teen reader could certainly both enjoy it and empathise with the challenges the child characters face. To me it is not a book specifically aimed at children, but it is very much about childhood and in particular the relationships between children and adults, the power balance between the two, usually skewed so unfairly in favour of adults, and how this can sometimes be altered. I've seen reviews suggesting it is about loss and grief and I would agree that this is partly true, but it wasn't what most leapt out at me. In this book we have parents, or adults in parental roles, failing in various ways. A widow wallows in self-pitying grief to the point of neglecting her children. A woman lets her new relationship with a man undermine the loyalty she owes her friends and their children. A person in a parental role conceals from a child things he has an absolute right to know. Teachers and other authority figures make unjustified assumptions, often based on a patronisingly inaccurate notion of how much children understand.
Meanwhile the children get along as they can, sometimes evading or subverting adult rules and interference, sometimes managing by their own efforts to change things for the better and even to make the adults around them see and admit that they are not always right. Because we see things from their perspective, we share their often caustic humour and observation, their way of cutting through hypocrisy and social politeness, and there are some very funny moments.
Because the plot is, essentially, a sort of detective story, I don't want to give away too much, beyond the fact that our young narrator thinks murder has been done next door but can't get any adult to take him seriously. Perhaps the most important thing to convey is that this novel definitely crosses age boundaries: in view of its narrator and themes it would certainly please a YA audience, but adults should not avoid it on that account, since its stylistic and narrative skills have much to attract them as well.