by Chloe Daykin, with illustrations by Richard Jones
Every now and then you read a book that is quite unlike anything else you’ve read. In Fish Boy we meet Billy, a young boy who is lonely and struggling to make friends at school; his great obsession is swimming in the sea, where his problems on land are washed away in the currents. Billy has a passion for natural history; through a stream of quotes from BBC Natural History Programmes, the soothing, authoritative voice of David Attenborough guides him through the most tricky social situations: how to approach females, how creatures behave when threatened, and the traits they exhibit in large groups. Billy’s home life is a happy one, but his mother is ill – she does her best, but seems barely to have the energy to leave her bed. Her illness is a mystery to Billy – and he doesn’t want to ask for fear of what he might be told; instead, he navigates through life by imagining he were on a wildlife programme. And then a fish starts talking to him. The fish want him to follow, they need him to see what they see, and then they want him to join them.
The story uncurls and spreads itself out, and the close-knit, protective community of the shoal is revealed to be as restrictive as it is shielding. Meanwhile, Billy’s friendship with a boy different from himself in every way starts to free him from his idea that he needs to be the same as everyone else. He learns the fish-language enough to begin to understand what they want, but his new knowledge brings with it a very difficult decision – and great danger.
I’ve always had an admiration for fish; we live in such different worlds: if we go unprotected in to their environment, we die; and if they come into ours they also cannot not survive. There seems to be a balance in this relationship. But how do you go about creating and communicating the language of a community of creatures so different to our own that we can’t really imagine their life and their minds at all? Chloe Daykin is a playwright as well as an author, and her understanding of spectacle, setting, colloquial dialogue, and the power of imagery brings the book alive. She has worked with illustrator Richard Jones, to create this slightly claustrophobic underwater world, in which the moonlight drifting through the water is as mesmerising as the slow but rhythmic whirling of the shoal. An author and an artist working together can create far more than each can alone; here, a combination of pattern and repetition echoes familiar words through the water – and at this point they become a language. It is human language cobbled together from different parts of the world, but then used to communicate concepts that are not human in nature. There is nothing anthropomorphic about Chloe Daykin’s fish characters – they are not individuals, they are them, a collective, they are ‘the us’ – their psychology is not human, but has evolved for their own survival and in their own environment. If Billy is to join them, and become like them, then he must change and learn to think not only of the world differently, but also to think of himself differently.
Back on land Billy’s family is having to adapt to their own new circumstances; Billy’s mother eventually gets a diagnosis of ME – something still very little understood by science – and the family has to find its own way to talk about it and live their lives around it.
Chloe Daykin has written something extraordinary and wonderful. As a writer she has a powerful and individual voice. I’m always interested in what writers choose to do with language; in Fish Boy Chloe Daykin and Richard Jones have created a dialect through which the fish communicate with each other in their shoal, and which Billy has to learn. They use few words, but the most expressive ones – the few that are needed to keep the shoal together. Nothing outside their little language is properly understood, neither the complexity of friendship, nor the need to support friends and family who are ill is part of their world. In Fish-world there is only the ‘us’; they are one thing and nothing outside it matters. This is a book about individuality and the need, occasionally, to take a leap of faith. It is about trust, love and the power of difference too. We learn that being part of the collective, the same as all the others and protected by all the others, brings comfort and security, but that it is a shallow existence – and an unrewarding one.
By Chloe Daykin
ISBN 9780571328222, published by Faber