The dust jacket of Boo reminds me of the ‘Travel Writer’ episode of Black Books. You know the one where every quote on the back of Jason Hamilton’s new book says he’s charming: “Every one of these blurbs says he’s charming: ‘I was swept away by a wave of charm.’ ‘I was immolated in a firewall of charm and charisma.’ ‘I almost exploded from the concentration of charm on the page.’” The one thing everyone seems able to agree upon regarding Neil Smith’s first full length novel is that it’s charming. Nothing like creating a little bit of pressure for yourself, is there. Still it was a novel that I’d been keen to read for some time: an incredibly charming novel that’s reminiscent of The Lovely Bones? Is it any wonder I lost sleep over this thing?
Boo is a novel that takes us into a whole new realm in this story about thirteen year old Oliver Dalrymple. Oliver, known to his classmates as Boo thanks to his pale skin, is an outsider who finds it easier to recite the periodic table than to make friends. Oliver lives a quiet, lonely life until he dies in front of his school locker: something he attributes to a heart condition he’s had since birth. A short while into his stay in Heaven, Oliver is joined by fellow student, Johnny, who informs Boo that they were actually killed in a shooting by the mysterious “Gunboy”. With the two boys suspecting that their killer is hidden amongst, the pair team up with their new friends to track him down.
Neil Smith’s novel is an interested concept that is part murder mystery, part bildungsroman, part afterlife narrative. Smith’s Heaven is perfectly realised in great detail. Oliver is a scientist and reacts to his first real brush with spirituality with a rational mind. He carries out experiments on himself and his surroundings: working out how long it takes both him and the buildings to heal when broken. Through his narration we learn everything we need to about the afterlife; what kind of toothpaste the dead use, what their houses look like and what they eat. There are plenty of differences between life in Heaven and life on Earth but occasionally oddities make their way through to remind residents of their past.
Heaven is set out fairly logically with age-groups and nationalities being kept together in their individual towns. The residents remain at the age they are at the time of their death but get 50 years before they “redie” and pass on. They are watched over by their omniscient God who they call Zig. He sends them food and supplies whenever they need it and sends a few exciting objects every few years when technology advances. Smith’s Heaven is quirky certainly but there is no denying that, despite it’s sad premise, is as charming as promised.
There isn’t a great deal to Boo‘s narrative but, thanks to the character of Oliver, there is enough detail to keep you reading. The overall reveal of the ‘murder mystery’ isn’t exactly ground-breaking or hard to figure out. However, the journey to get there is heart warming in its own way. Oliver goes from a friendless, weirdo to someone who finally finds his place. He makes new connections and finds a best friend in Johnny. It is the strengthening of their friendship that keeps the story moving forward.
The novel is beautifully written but there are moments when Smith’s indulgences causes the pace to lag somewhat. Oliver’s narration is littered with off-hand remarks and witty interjections which feels a bit forced and unnecessary. There are plenty of references to science and literature which don’t always seem relevant to the plot. The narrative, though streamlined, does drag in places and I was eager to rush over some of the middle sections. I did enjoy reading Boo though but I was a little put off by how often it feels too simplistic. Smith sometimes stresses his points so much that the reader doesn’t need to think for themselves. There are a great deal of clever insights into the life of young people but it doesn’t always translate in the writing style.
However, the novel is still a great success and has the right kind of emotional pay-off when the time comes. When Smith leaves Oliver to explore and feel free within his surroundings the narrative soars into life. There are plenty of important issues to jump into play as Oliver gets further into his new world. Some of these are handled better than others but all raise valid points. The novel handles difficult subjects sensitively and manages to ensure that the sadness that hangs over every page doesn’t engulf the reader. There is just as much to be joyful within Boo as there is to lament. It’s something readers of every age should experience.