Maggot Moon is a book you “have to” like. It would be considered a) bad taste, b) having no heart and c) “not knowing your stuff”, if you don’t like this book. Well, that’s just not how it works with the cat. Yes, this book won both the Carnegie Medal and a Printz Honor, which should mean a lot, I guess, but I don’t find it a particularly “likable” book. Is this a good book? Yes, for sure because it definitely has more than its share of literary and other merits (it’s “well done”), but I can’t say that I “liked” it very much. And this for the very simple reason that the connect between protagonist, Standish Treadwell, and me, the reader, just wasn’t there.
Maggot Moon is that novel that would be hard to categorize at first. Is it a historical novel? Yes and no. Is it a dystopian novel? Yes and no again to that. Semi-historical ‘alternate outcome of history’ dystopian adventure story would be a good way to describe its setting. The year is… not mentioned for a long time, until you finally learn that it’s 1956. Before that, what you did know is that Standish lives in a society that’s dividing its people into Pure and Impure and people like Standish and his Gramps end up in Zone 7, the zone designated for outcasts and impures. Standish could be living in any totalitarian regime that won a war, but saying he lives in an age in which Nazi Germany “won” the war wouldn’t be a stretch. Almost starving, doing the best he can to survive, Standish goes to a school where the kids are treated brutally. Standish has found solace in the one true friend he’s made, Hector. That is, until something happens and Hector disappears. Standish’s story is also the story of a the race to the moon, the race between important nations that want to put the first man on the moon, and of course the Motherland has gone all-in in this too.
Maggot Moon is lauded almost universally because of its very distinct narrative voice. Standish has a (learning) disability. Although this is not explicitly stated in the book, reading one interview with (or listening to) Sally Gardner and you know the authorial intent here was to give Standish the voice of someone who has dyslexia. In the book this is cause for him to be called ‘stupid’ by a.o. his brutish teacher because he can’t read and write the way a 15-year-old is supposed to, and it’s in part the reason why he lives in Zone 7. That and the fact that he has heterochromia, an “affliction” the cat also “suffers” from. This, obviously is not a serious illness or anything, it just makes you stand out. It’s also one hell of a conversation stopper, you could be in the midst of a conversation with someone and then they’d just stop mid-sentence exclaiming: “You’ve got two different eyes.” Is this a rare thing? Well, that depends. About 6 in 1000 may have a very mild case of heterochromia iridum , while the things that Standish has (very distinctive, one eye blue, the other brown) would be considered “very rare” (I read numbers of about 2 in a million but also “less than 200 000 people in the US”). Anyway, in Standish’s world it could very well be just one more sign of impurity and a reason to fear for your life. Anyway, the point of view is ‘unique’ in that the reader experiences everything through the (very polished prose, I might add) of a kid with a learning disability. This point of view leads to awkward phrasing sometimes, but also – obviously – to near poetic language because Standish has a very unique way of seeing things in his head. It’s just the words that come differently to him, which means you get metaphors like “doubt is a great worm in a crispy, red apple” or the beating of Standish’s heart is like “an egg bumping against the side of a pan of boiling water.” Yes, that’s all very nice and poetic. And yes, I do recognize the literary quality of all of this.
But at the same time I cannot shake the feeling that there’s almost too much authorial presence here: it’s Sally Gardner writing pretty sentences, and writing short concise chapters, and making you believe that this is how Standish thinks and experiences everything. In other words, I couldn’t really go along with the “this is Standish’s voice”. To me it felt more like “this is Sally Gardner showing us that Standish thinks and speaks like this”. That being said, I do recognize the “quality” of this book even though it prevented me from fully getting into the book.
And then there are the illustrations in the margins (the rats, the maggots etc.)… a nice find, yes, but absolutely not developed enough, I thought. This part of the book could have made this book stellar (no pun intended) and then it would have had a much greater impact (think A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Jim Kay). Now, I felt myself not really looking at them anymore after a few chapters… a mere distraction, rather than an integral part of the story, which I personally think they could (should) have been.
Maggot Moon is a book that is destined to have mass appeal, lots of cross-over potential here… It’s a book for people who loved A curious incident of the dog in the night-time and Wonder. It’s a book for people who like dystopian novels and a book for people who love historical World War II novels. It’s also a book that I can see ‘grown-ups’ telling their kids they should read (and like). For the cat it’s a book that does have its literary merits but that has some definite flaws as well, flaws which prevented me to fully ‘get’ or ‘like’ this book.