Firstly…

The Hunt for David Berman is a classic-style adventure. It’s a spy-thriller for children and it’s a great page-turner. It’s the early days of the Second World War and Robert and his sister Elsa have been sent to stay with their grandparents on the Banffshire/Moray coast. Their parents are both serving in the forces, their Dad as a soldier and their Mum in the Wrens. Tor Head Farm near the village of Inchbrakie is nothing at all like Robert’s London home and he is struggling to settle in at the farm and at school.

One day, down on the beach, he meets a boy of his own age who turns out to be David, a refugee from Germany rescued by the Kindertransport programme. After arriving in the south of England, he was taken to a farm near Banff from which he has now run away because of the cruelty of the farmer who has ostensibly offered him a home. In fact he was merely looking for cheap labour. Now David is living in a cave near Robert’s family farm terrified that the authorities will track him down. The two boys become friends and secretly spend as much time together as they can without Robert’s grandparents finding out. Unbeknownst to David, however, a Nazi agent living unsuspected in Britain is on his trail. David has something the Nazis are desperate to recover…

Claire Mulligan has written a cracking story, well-paced and with strongly-developed characters. I think she’s especially good at capturing the emotions of the two boys and I can see this being enjoyed very much by those for whom it was written. In fact, I enjoyed it very much and I’m probably about forty years older than the target audience. But that brings me on to…

Secondly…

Not only am I a middle-aged book reviewer, but I’m also an English Language graduate. Words are my business and I’m very sensitive to them. What I’m going to write now shouldn’t take away from anything I’ve written above and is unlikely even to occur to young readers but I think it’s important. Claire Mulligan reveals her Irish identity in her writing which, of course, is not a problem – except that her book is set in north east Scotland. Where we would use the verb ‘to take’, her characters use ‘to bring’. I know that it doesn’t affect the story but it’s something I’d expect a good editor to pick up on. It grated on me the first time I read it, and irked me more each time it occurred. (I’d also have expected the occasional muddling of tenses to be fixed.)

The more significant problems, though, are to do with the setting. I don’t know if Claire is familiar with the southern coast of the Moray Firth. I am, having lived there for almost half my life. And the speech patterns of the locals (not me; I was an incomer!) are pretty distinctive. For me, the setting of a book is very important and that’s the biggest failing of The Hunt for David Berman: the setting is never truly evoked. Partly that is down to the descriptions of the physical environment but the language also plays a part. Robert’s grandparents speak standard English; there’s no Doric and no Scots construction. Picky, yes. But true also.

And finally…

I’ve only carped about the language because I think this is a very good debut novel. It kept me reading from start to finish in one sitting. And, believe me, that is not true of all the books I am sent. Most of them don’t even rate a review if the truth were to be told. I hope that Claire Mulligan will write more books for young readers and I hope that she/her agent/her publisher will let me see them in spite of this!

2 Comments

  1. That would annoy me too. I once nearly hit the roof over a book in which a character who was meant to be from Rochdale spoke in West Country dialect! The author was American, and I think she assumed that all working-class English people spoke in the same way.

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