Beck by Mal Peet
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I’m catching up on my Carnegie reading for this year and Beck was always going to be near the top of my list. From its story of production where Mal Peet passed away whilst writing and Meg Rosoff finished the manuscript, through to its critical reception, Beck is an eyecatching novel. I was never going to start anywhere else. Mal Peet was a remarkable writer and I could talk for days about his work (see here for reviews of Tamar and Life…). Peet wrote about faith and hope and big, sprawling stories of life. I loved them. I am so sorry that he is no longer with us.
But here’s the thing. I didn’t like Beck. Not at all, really.
The titular Beck is an orphan born of an encounter between his mother and an African American soldier. Left alone in the world, he is shipped to Canada and the supposed care of a group of Catholic Brothers. It won’t leave much to the imagination if I tell you that Beck does not receive anything remotely approximating to care. It also won’t leave much to the imagination if I tell you that this involves abuse. It is important to read this yourself to fully understand the nature of this but it is written very barely, very plainly, and rather horrendous through its banality. Searing is one way to describe it. Beck moves on, scarred and restless. Another time, another place, the hope to connect. He moves from circumstance to circumstance, some good, some bad, all the while trying to find his place in the world.
It was, as Goodreads somehow delightfully phrases it, just ok.
My dislike didn’t come from the graphic content, though I do recognise how this problematic for some and I would recommend reading it yourself before working with it. Tonally, Beck reminded me a lot of The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks and I wonder if this does win the Carnegie, whether there will be a conversation to have about the evolving tone of children’s literature and what we consider as meritable in the field. Is meritable a word? I don’t think it is, but I think its appropriate.
I got Beck yesterday afternoon (A library open on a sunday? Imagine!), gleeful after my reservation came in early, and I finished it that same day. And all I had was a glorious sense of disconnect. A book that should have meant something to me, really sort of didn’t.
Beck is a beautiful told story, but it’s a story told at a distance and whilst some of that is incredibly justified and thematically appropriate, there’s very little chance to connect. It’s like sitting on a train and seeing beautiful scenery beyond the window but the train never stops. I couldn’t pinpoint the precise moment where Rosoff took over from Peet’s unfinished manuscript but I could tell a tone shift in the final quarter or so. The book becomes something quite different and problematic. Do I mean problematic? Yes, I think I do. I can’t comment on the representation of people in this book, and would direct you towards other and own voices to seek that veracity, but I can comment on structure and plot. And I found it problematic. The book sort of burns towards a point where you kind of think it will go off and do its own thing – a defiant unwillingness to conform – and I wanted that.
But then the fire goes out. Wet twigs on a smoking fire.
And that’s relevant for the story told here, but it doesn’t make a book. It really doesn’t.
View all my reviews