Joelene Reviews: David Almond's - "A Song for Ella Grey"
In the Easter holidays, Clair and her friends go to Northumberland to escape parents, the icy cold of the north and mundane life. Claire’s best friend, Ella Grey, was meant to join them but her strict parents forbade it at the last minute. Still, when a strange and gorgeous lyre-wielding man shows up to play music for the group on the windy Bamburgh beach, Claire’s first thought is of Ella. She calls her; and Ella, hearing the magical music through the phone, falls in love.
A Song for Ella Grey is a modern retelling of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. As such it works. The writing is lyrical and the story follows the themes of the original tale faithfully. Orpheus is a musician who can charm the earth itself, but cannot protect the woman he loves. He and Eurydice – or Ella – are fated to be torn apart before their time.
Tragedy soaks this book from the opening lines, ‘I’m the one who’s left behind. I’m the one to tell the tale. I knew them both, knew how they lived and how they died.’ The tone of the novel is melancholy and relentless. As in the epic tales, the fate of Orpheus and Ella is ordained from the outset. There is no escape; the only option is to see how the fate unfolds.
On most levels, A Song for Ella Grey follows epic tradition. Emotionally the characters are obscure rather than distinct. They are more akin to characters in myth and fairy-tales where the emotions are told rather than shown, and there is little subtlety or complexity to them. This is the part of the novel that didn’t work for me, though I think it is one of those ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ things.
What I look for in a modern retelling is very different to what this retelling is aiming for. I love fairy-tales and original myths, but I don’t expect to understand all – or any – of the character’s emotions or decisions. The story is about the magic and the imagination – there’s so much of it that I don’t need to ask why a man would send his daughter off to a beast or why a woman would turn men into animals.
In a modern retelling, I love the humanity that characters develop. Even if the basic story line is exactly the same, I expect the love to be deeper and more complex. I expect characters to explore the confines of their myth or fairy-tale with a modern perspective. A Song for Ella Grey stuck much more closely with the original myth. However, there is some wider exploration of Ella/Eurydice’s character. Her parents and best friend play a much larger part than they ever did in the myth, providing the scope to explore why she was so exceptional that someone could breach the underworld to try and find her. But even though everyone says how much they love her, the why is not explored.
Ultimately, David Almond wrote a different story to the one that I expected. As the tragic legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, A Song for Ella Grey more than succeeds. It stays true to the original myth even with a new setting and new characters. The voice is lyrical and the tone melancholy in keeping with the epic nature of this tale. If you have an interest in Greek mythology and know the Orpheus and Eurydice myth then this is a must read. Without a back-ground knowledge however, the story may be far too surreal to attempt.
A Song for Ella Grey – David Almond
Hodder Children’s Books (October 2, 2014)