See Ya, Simon
Mallinson Rendel, 1992, $19.95
Under the Rotunda
Hazard Press, 1992, $14.95
David Hill’s exceptional first novel for younger teenagers shows all the assurance one would expect from this former high school teacher and well-known newspaper columnist, writer for adults, and playwright. More than this, however, Hill’s book reveals his special empathy with, and sensitivity towards, young people. Written around the decline and death of Simon who has MD (muscular dystrophy), the story is contemporary, spirited, frequently hilarious, at times sharply poignant ‑ but always strong. Teenagers everywhere will identify with the very real characters, dialogue, lifestyles, and family situations portrayed. This universal appeal was recognised immediately by the large English publisher who quickly secured the rights to publish the book in both hardback and paperback forms.
Simon’s best friend Nathan tells Simon’s story. Simon emerges as a quick-witted boy with a great sense of humour who participates so fully in class and soccer games that his peers hardly notice he is in a wheel chair – except on the odd occasion that Simon slyly takes advantage of his situation to take the mickey out of his friends. At home, Simon lives with his family in a house with ramps and other special features which allow him relative independence. He has the usual family duties which he manages just a little differently: for example, he tidies his bedroom with tongs. Through Nathan’s accounts of their school and home lives, readers learn that Simon is not going to grow up with the rest of his friends; he is going to ‘grow down’. In English class he is the only one not worried about growing old – because, as he says, he is ‘going to be dead first’. Simon can only dream about walking and running and asks Nathan what it feels like to ride a bike. None of this causes the story to become maudlin. Nor do the given facts about Simon’s incurable disease: that it begins at age three or four when children suddenly fall a lot, and gradually leads to the failure of muscles not only in the legs but in the shoulders and arms, so that the victim of MD must eventually be strapped into a wheelchair. Simon’s story conveys the hereditary nature of the illness, the bouts of hospitalisation it requires, the difficulties it brings: simply breathing or going to the toilet, appalling thinness, and constant worry and pain of pressure sores. The wonder of Hill’s book is that Simon’s plight and death are conveyed so positively, not only with the normal human responses of distress, fear, and anger, but also with such humour, and without sentimentality. The author deserves full commendation for this marvellously funny and sensitive work.
Under the Rotunda is a successful first novel from published poet and short story writer, James Norcliffe, a long-time teacher who is currently Head of English at Mairehau High School in Christchurch. Set in this southern city and played out against well-known settings like Hagley Park and the river Avon during the August school holidays, this fantasy is busy, fast-moving, and entertaining. The book’s strengths include colourful characters and dialogue (this teacher has internalised student lingo); also a plot which forever twists and turns so that outcomes are unpredictable – and often the catalyst for another diabolical turn of events.
The narrator of the story is Thomas (Tom) Miller who is living with his grandmother – ‘born some time during the last ice age … [but] … a fly lass … deceptively sharp – while his parents work overseas. Strangely, Tom finds himself summoned by a scribbly note to a night rendez-vous at a rotunda, where he and his friends plan to rescue twenty-five members of the Blackwater Creek Silver Band. The Band have each been reduced in size to sixteen centimetres by a magician’s spell which has backfired and wait locked up in the storeroom under the rotunda while the conjuror, lilac-eyed Henry Falco, and his ‘slippery’ acquaintance, Ginger O’Reilly, try to find out how to reverse the magic. What proves pivotal in their quest is an engraved silver cornet which Tom’s grandfather, the deceased founder of the band, gave his wife long ago. In the search for the horn that the magic demands, adventures and near-disasters abound.
Young people aged eleven to fourteen will enjoy Under the Rotunda most. Some readers may find it rather fanciful to be credible. However, I found it sufficiently believable to sustain interest and to be fun to read; perhaps, with its focus on a conjuror’s efforts gone wrong, it gains special credence from being set in a city with a resident wizard and which is also home to Margaret Mahy. (Mahy’s magical stories have clearly influenced Norcliffe and she writes encouragingly about his book on its back cover.) Norcliffe’s writing is overly descriptive and earnest at times but these qualities will no doubt settle in future work.
Celia Dunlop was children’s books columnist for the New Zealand Listener 1988-1991.