The lovely people at Walker Books have just sent me a copy of Mal Peet’s new book, Exposure. I’m a huge fan of his books and I could hardly wait to read this one. But it might all have been so different had I not been judging the Carnegie Medal back in 2004.
As a judge for the Carnegie Medal, one of the things I learned was how important it is never to judge a book by its cover. My heart sank a number of times as I ploughed through the longlisted titles. Often, reading the book didn’t change my initial opinion but there were some glorious exceptions.
One of those was a thin book with a green and black cover that had a picture of a footballer on it. The blurb compounded my prejudice by telling me where it was set. Great, just what I needed: a story of football in South America. Not, I thought, my kind of book at all. However, there was no option but to read it and there wasn’t enough time to put it off. So I started and found to my surprise that it wasn’t too bad. I kept going and gradually realised that I was hooked; I really wanted to know what happened and I couldn’t put it down.
That book was Keeper by Mal Peet. In spite of the cover, it is only sort of about football. I know that’s not good English but it’s true. One of the main characters is a footballer but, really, that just provides a backdrop for the unfolding action. The South American setting is more important but that didn’t detract at all from my enjoyment. We didn’t short list the book but there was general agreement that it was well-written and that we’d like to read more of Mal Peet’s work.
A few months later, I was at the Youth Libraries Group conference where I picked up a proof copy of Tamar, Mal’s next book. Having a few minutes to spare before the day’s first session, I began reading the first chapter.
Tamar is a hugely different book to Keeper. Think of resistance fighters of the Second World War and you will almost certainly have France in mind. This novel, however, focuses on the intertwined and inter-dependant lives of one cell of the Dutch resistance during the cold, hungry winter of 1944. It tells two stories: that of the eponymous present-day heroine alongside her SOE agent grandfather’s. The shift between the two is skilful and unobtrusive, the one often coming as a relief from the other. For this book is not an easy or undemanding read. It is powerful and shocking but it is also memorable and compelling. As Tamar uncovered her grandfather’s tragic and terrible story, I was as surprised and horrified as she was.
Tamar was much more obviously my kind of book and I took it into the conference with me and read it all the way through the first session and at other points throughout the day, finishing it before I went to sleep that night. It has become one of my all-time favourite books and I was delighted beyond expression when it won the Carnegie Medal. After this Mal Peet came to speak at a number of events I organised and I was charmed to meet him and his wife.
But back to the books. Tamar was followed by The Penalty, the second title (after Keeper) of what are now known as the Paul Faustino books. It’s much darker than Keeper and, I think, a much more complex novel. It deals with slavery and the occult as well as football and, like Tamar, moves backwards and forwards in time.
The Penalty was published in 2006 and so I’ve been waiting more than two years for Mal’s next book. Exposure is another Paul Faustino book. Perhaps I should explain who Paul is. He’s not the main character in any of the books but he always plays a significant role. He’s a sports journalist working for a respected national newspaper. He’s a likable character without being flawless. In Exposure, he plays an important part and was one of the few characters I knew I could trust.
This is another book with a football background; it tells the story of Otello, a brilliant striker who has just joined Rialto. He is black and from the north of the (un-named) country. Rialto is in the south and is almost exclusively a white club. The story is about racism but only partly. Intertwined with Otello’s story is that of Bush, a street kid. But the book isn’t just about the chasm that divides these two people. There’s corruption and deception and lack of trust. Good people make mistakes and the wicked prosper but the opposite is also true. And that’s what I liked about Exposure – and what frustrated me. It’s not neatly tied up and characters don’t all get their just desserts.
Mal Peet’s writing is excellent and the way he manages the different strands of his plot is masterly. I can’t recommend the book highly enough. As far as I’m concerned, this is the best of the Paul Faustino books and nearly as good as Tamar. If it’s not at least short listed for the Carnegie I’ll be outraged! It’s emotionally compelling and realistic and there’s no jarring happily-ever-after ending. Or, at least, not for all the characters…