Reviews /

The Blue Book of Nebo

Authored by Manon Steffan Ros (translated from the Welsh by the author)
Published by Firefly Press

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The Blue Book of Nebo: Dylan was six when The End came, back in 2018. After this disaster, he survives alone with his mother, Rowena, and younger sister, Mona, in a lonely, blasted version of an alternative, but all-too-plausible present and near-future. As the novel unfolds, we observe the inner worlds of Dylan and Rowena as they chronicle their days and their thoughts in the eponymous notebook.

With the real-life news around us growing ever more gloomy, with war, political unrest, and national sadness forming the headlines, The Blue Book of Nebo might strike a familiar chord as it presents us with an unsettling, frightening picture; but it also triumphs as a brilliant reminder of the power of the novella form, something rarely seen in fiction writing for young people (the great example of Barrington Stoke being, of course, the exception!). In stark yet sensitively poetic prose, Ros weaves two stories, one of a mother hardened by survival (and her life before The End) and her son’s growth into self-awareness.

The tone throughout is bleak. There are shards of hope – such as the light that, through his mother’s eyes, falls on ‘handsome’ Dylan and the sea beyond – but they, just like that flicker of sunshine, often cloud over. Rowena calls herself ‘hard’ and her inner ‘coldness’ certainly permeates much of the prose too. Hers is a fearsome voice which at the novel’s darker moments turns to searing bitterness and despair, the strength of which makes the reading of some chapters a caustic experience.

Dylan, however, provides us with a softer and more hopeful version of ‘The End’: he is good and kind, sensitive even to the silent scream of a hare he has trapped; whilst he works the land, he talks constantly to his baby sister, strapped to his back; and though it is their only means of survival, he even feels remorse for the vegetables he eats – “How can I eat something I have cared for and grown myself”? Ultimately, it is the image of a carrot seedling, one he has nurtured in ‘dead soil’ that is transcendent: while he may not perhaps be fully aware just how much his presence, his being, means to his mother, that feeble, but potent curl of green poking from the earth shows us Dylan’s, and the novel’s truth: Life will find a way.

Admittedly, while reading, I more than once asked myself the question, ‘Is this really a book for young people?’, finding the dark and nihilistic nature of the subject matter pretty strong throughout. The spirits of both McEwan’s The Cement Garden and Banks’ The Wasp Factory raised themselves and would not shift as I read – but it is the very presence of those ghosts that point to the overwhelming, undeniable power of Ros’ writing. But The Blue Book of Nebo does feel like a book for older teenagers (at least). While there is nothing particularly inappropriate in the text itself, the story focuses strongly on a mother and being a mother, so to empathise with Rowena’s struggles with herself and the world certainly makes the reading a much more challenging prospect.

The Blue Book of Nebo has already garnered much-deserved praise. A consummately fine novel, its rarefied gem-like qualities will repay re-readings from sensitive, thinking readers many times over.

In the Reading Corner: Manon Steffan Ros talked with Nikki Gamble about the Blue Book of Nebo