The central character of this complex and stimulating book, ‘Zaki’ (Isaac), is on the threshold of adolescence and the childhood idyll is clearly over: his mother has left and his father concentrates on doing up holiday homes. A unifying activity is sailing off the Cornish coast, but even here the days of childhood adventure have ended. Zaki’s discovery of a skeleton in a hitherto hidden cave uncovers a local legacy of brutality and piracy which has profound psychological effects.
Chris Speyer has written a multi-layered text which can be appreciated on a number of levels. The technicalities of sailing are described in detail, and the coastal community is well sketched in. Zaki’s time with his boat-builder grandfather in his workshop by the waterfront contrasts with the quarrels between his father and older brother at home. This underlying realism inter-relates with passages in which doubts are raised about Zaki’s identity, as he comes under the influence of a magic bracelet from the cave. Not only does Zaki involuntarily assume the identity of creatures such as a seagull – when he enjoys the freedom of unfettered flight – but his own body is occasionally taken over by the malevolent spirit of a ship-wrecker from the past. This possession is both frightening and oppressive, making the adventure disturbing rather than exhilarating. As the story ends, his mother has returned and the family resumes its earlier project to build a boat ‘to explore the world, maybe discover paradise’.
The book works some interesting variations on both the traditional adventure story and accounts of adolescent difficulties. The ingenious explanation links a gothic tale of seafaring, empire and class with the essentially modern story of the trials of growing up and dysfunctional family life. However, the book could be too sophisticated for children of around eleven (the age of the protagonist) and may be better appreciated by older teenagers.