The startling language of the opening pages of this book draws the reader in to a frightening world where the power relationship between the hostile adult and vulnerable child is at the centre. It’s a book that will repay a slow, careful reading.
Cough Cough, X-Ray, Chicken Angel and Lights Out are the only four children still alive in the institution they call The Bin. The names they give each other accurately and ironically reflect their impairments – their only defence against the power of hostile adults is this brilliant, private language and the affection and support they give each other. Tranks, dozie and hypos are Tin Lid’s (the nurse, not unlike One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s Nurse Ratched) ways of silencing them. Why they are there isn’t entirely clear, but they know that the only escape is when they eventually go Takeaway, like the children before them.
When Cough Cough, the clever one, begins to understand where the medical experimentation is going to lead, he encourages the other three to escape. Into the story come Nails (hard as), a classic wrong-side-of-the-tracks character, and posh but discontented girl Natalie who is unable to believe that children can be treated with such cruelty. With a dynamic interplay of first and third person narratives, their stories and the ensuing nail-biting car chase escape are woven together.
I had no idea how this extraordinary novel would end, and when it came, it was unsettling. I feel uncomfortable with the idea that a satisfactory ending for ‘imperfect’ children is a happy death, even one where they might fly off to angelic skies.
There is a lot for the intelligent reader here, many unanswered questions and puzzles. Singleton has a beautiful way of describing the instinctive way the children have of understanding and supporting each other’s strengths and weaknesses. But this book is set not in the distant past but in 2004. Why ‘special’ children (disabled is not a word ever used in this book) are locked away and left to die like this is unexplained. This is definitely one for discussion.