Unhooking the Moon (by Gregory Hughes)

21 03 2011

Meet Bob and his sister, the Rat. They are prairie kids from Winnipeg, a land “so flat you can watch your dog run away for three days”. When their father dies (after one of the Rat’s curiously accurate premonitions), the Rat decides they should go to New York, to find their long-lost (drug dealer) uncle Jerome DeBillier. So the two set off on a road trip of sorts to New York.  What follows is one of the quirkiest of traveler’s tales, with the two of them meeting conmen, hustlers, rap idols, etc.

Unhooking the Moon is one of those rare novels that just seem to come out of the blue (it is Gregory Hughes’ debut novel). The originality of this little novel comes from 2 distinct points. At first there’s the character of the Rat (Marie Claire). She’s a bit of everything, carefree, witty, wise, fearless…, and even her brother Bob hasn’t quite figured her out: a 10-year-old who loves to play soccer, who puts on different accents, who speaks French and Spanish fluently, who is into Native culture and myth, who literally beeps out her swearwords, who’s not afraid to shoplift, who has strange fits and premonitions, … the Rat could be quite gorgeous and mysterious at times, yet everyone seemed to fall under her spell as soon as they met her.

Second, the point of view and writing style is what makes this novel both different and endearing. I can understand people who say they found this book hard to get into. The style of the novel is fairly magical. In fact, I’d say the entire story reads like a fairy tale, a bit akin to a lot of Neil Gaiman’s award-winning writing. Gregory Hughes himself says: “I thought it would be a great thing to write a book that anyone could read. I never toned down the language, I wrote it on my voice, in just the way I speak. I was taught that you should never try to make the language flowery or show off to impress the reader and I talk kind of basic anyway, I don’t use big words so the language I was using, an 11 or 12-year-old would not have to strain themselves to understand it.” The childlike wonder and the innocence in the language and behavior of the characters is definitely present in the novel.  And when a grownup reader tries to look with their grownup eyes at the deceptively simple and basic language that Bob – still only a 12-year-old himself – uses and the type of roadside adventures the two end up in, you  might feel a bit uncomfortable when you read this book.

However, if you let yourself discover the child within you and you let the words of the book absorb you completely, this is a gem of a novel. Despite this being a “children’s book”, there’s no embellishing of things. From the beginning you know this will not be your typical happy ending fairy tale. Of course, fairy tales in themselves might end well, but they also play on the most basic and primal fears of a society – something that I would argue Gregory Hughes is also doing in Unhooking the Moon. Though a lot of the scenes are incredibly fun, you’re always left to wonder what’s lurking in the shadows.

Unhooking the Moon won the 2010 Booktrust Teenage prize, a prize which has a bit of history of celebrating truly original and creative writing. Well, they’re truly original and creative books to me in any case, and definitely books with an appeal to more than their so-called target audience: Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and my absolute favorite in their list of winners Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting GoUnhooking the Moon is not so much a book that you have to read, but experience.

Meet Bob and The Rat. The Rat could be full of surprises sometimes.

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